Note: Errors were made in last week’s article “Touring the Skies”, this is a rerun of that article.
At the end of our last tour, which I shared with you back in February, I promised that I would help you find the constellation Taurus. Unfortunately, at about a week before I usually write this piece I caught the flu and although I tried, my brain was simply not up to the task of getting the March article written in time to meet the submission deadline. But, even though I made the promise to help you find Taurus two months ago, it is not too late and we’ll begin our tour this month chasing after the great bull. The good news is that we can still find Taurus in the April skies. The bad news is that since we observe Daylight Savings Time it does not get dark enough to see the stars very well until around 9:00. Even though spring weather is nice, it still gets cold enough to need a coat this early in April so in order to enjoy this little planet hunting outing to the fullest, here is what I suggest: around 8:30 pour some milk (or water, if you prefer) into your favorite mug and heat it in your microwave for a minute or so. While that is going, get your coat and hat on and get your binoculars, if you have a pair. As soon as the microwave timer dings, grab the mug from the microwave and add some cocoa or chocolate syrup and head outside to the west side of your house. The first thing that will catch your eye will likely be the planet Mars. Mars will be about 20 degrees up from the horizon almost due west between 8:30 and 9:00 P.M. on April 8. The red planet will really look red since it is so low and shining at a reasonably bright magnitude 1.5. Now, remember negative magnitudes are really bright; dazzlingly bright, you might say. This month, Mars is definitely not dazzlingly bright at positive mag. 1.5 but it will be much brighter than anything else nearby so you should have no trouble picking it out. There is another planet nearby although it will be a challenge for us Iowans to locate this month: Mercury. Interestingly, Mercury will be shining much brighter than Mars at magnitude -0.2 but the tiny planet is just a few degrees off the horizon and clouds and more atmosphere between us and it will make it look much dimmer if we can see it at all. Worth a try, though. On the 8th, Mercury will be down and to the right of Mars barely clearing distant tree tops on the horizon. If you are in town surrounded by nearby trees and houses, you’ll have to go to a place with a good view of the horizon to spot speedy little Mercury. Take your time and enjoy the views while sipping your hot cocoa. Ok, back to our quest for the angry bull. Find Mars again and instead of looking down and to the right as we did for Mercury, instead look up and to the left and look for a much dimmer but similarly colored star. That would be Aldebaran, which is also known as the ‘Eye of the Bull”. Aldebaran is also known as Alpha Tauri. The designation ‘Alpha’ means that it is the brightest star in the constellation to which it belongs, in this case Taurus. (Tauri is the genitive case of the Latin name Taurus.) Don’t ask me why we use the Greek letters of the alphabet to designate the relative brightness of stars and Latin constellation names - I guess it just seemed logical to an astronomer named Bayer who assigned those names a long time ago. Aldebaran is a very interesting star. It is at the left tip of a group of stars in a ‘V’ shape which is the face of the bull. Aldebaran is about 28 light years from our solar system. If your 28th birthday is this year then the light from Aldebaran that you see now, left that red star the year you were born and has just now arrived! One way to think about that distance would be that if we made the distance from the Sun to Earth one inch, then Aldebaran would be 27 miles away! And it is getting farther away all the time; it is speeding away from us at a rate of about 30 miles a second. Wow! That ‘V’ shaped group of stars that marks the face of Taurus is actually a cluster of stars that are moving through space as a group. Astronomers call this an ‘open cluster’ because the stars are spread out and this particular open cluster has a name: The Hyades. This name is very old. According to the book Star Myths by Theony Condos, one account says that there were fifteen daughters born of Atlas and Aethra, the daughter of Oceanus. Of these, five were called Hyades because Hyas their brother was much beloved by his sisters. When he was killed by a lion while hunting, five of the sisters reportedly perished because of their unending grief. And so, those who were most affected by his death were placed in the sky and called Hyades. The remaining ten sisters discussed their sisters’ death and seven of them killed themselves; these were placed in the sky as well and became the other nearby open cluster in Taurus: The Pleiades. (see Star Myths by Theony Condos pp 192). Jupiter reaches opposition this month on the 7th. Saturn is lurking in Sagittarius. Both will be visible all summer. The Lyrid meteor shower will peak early in the morning on Saturday April 22nd. The moon will be a thin waning crescent that morning and not a problem so get up a few hours before dawn and see how many you can count! Clear Skies!