Constellation Virgo home to Saturn in April

Posted March 30, 2010, at 5:13 p.m.

The constellation of Virgo the Virgin is home to Saturn during April. Virgo is universally known as a goddess of fertility providing food to humankind and often is shown as a woman with a stalk of wheat or ear of corn in her hand. The native Americans gave the name “Corn Mother” to the constellation while in ancient Egypt it was the goddess Isis.

How far back into antiquity the myths surrounding Virgo go is not known, but Richard Allen in his book “Star Names” say it might be as early as when the spring equinox occurred among its stars some 14,000 years ago. This is hard to credit, but there is no question that the constellation has been known for millennia.

The brightest star in Virgo is Spica, and it is also home to the Virgo cluster, the largest cluster of galaxies closest to the Milky Way. Generations of introductory astronomy students will remember being told to follow the curve of the Big Dipper’s handle and then “arc to Arcturus and speed on to Spica.”

Focus on the planets

The major planetary show of April is Mercury and Venus together in the evening twilight.

Mercury puts on its best display for the year in the first two weeks of April. Look for Mercury well up on the northwestern horizon to the lower right of Venus about a half-hour after sunset. Mercury will disappear from view by midmonth.

Venus shines brilliantly in the west before Mercury makes its appearance. On April 3, Venus and Mercury are separated by only 3 degrees.

Mars is high in the south at twilight and remains in view all evening. Mars will continue to shrink and fade in size and brightness as it falls behind the Earth in their orbits about the sun.

Jupiter rises just before the sun and is low in the east at dawn. Best viewing will be at the end of the month as the giant planet rises about two hours before the sun.

Saturn is fairly low in the southeast at dusk and remains in view all night. The best time to view Saturn’s rings is around midnight when they are open about 2 degrees to our line of sight. Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, will offer a good display.

Uranus is in the vicinity of Jupiter, however, it will not be in the glow of dawn.

Neptune is not well-placed for viewing but it is interesting to note that it is in the same place in sky when astronomer Johann Galle discovered it on Sept. 23, 1846. It has made one orbit of the sun since Galle spotted it.

April events

1 Sunrise, 6:17 a.m.; sunset, 7:02 p.m.

4 Easter. Historically Easter was determined to be the first Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or after the day of the vernal equinox.

6 Moon in last quarter, 5:37 a.m.

7 Mercury is low in the west at dusk making one of its best appearances of the year to the lower right of Venus.

9 Moon at apogee or farthest distance from Earth today.

11 Jupiter is the brilliant point of light just below the crescent moon at dawn.

14 New moon, 8:30 a.m.

15 Venus, Mercury, and the thin crescent moon are clustered together low in the west an hour after sunset. The Pleiades cluster is just above the trio.

17 Mars passes just north of the Beehive star cluster tonight.

19 The sun enters Aries on the ecliptic.

20 The sun enters the astrological sign of Taurus although, astronomically, it has just entered Aries.

21 Moon in first quarter, 2:19 p.m.

22 Peak night for the Lyrid meteor shower. The moon will not interfere, and watchers can expect 15-25 meteors an hour.

24 The moon is at perigee or closest approach to Earth.

28 Full moon, 8:18 a.m. The full moon of April is known as the Grass Moon, Egg Moon, Planter’s Moon, or Pink Moon, referring to wild pink ground phlox, one of spring’s earliest flowers.

30 May Eve. Celebrated by some as the cross-quarter day marking the midpoint between the spring equinox and summer solstice. Sunrise, 5:27 a.m.; sunset, 7:39 p.m.

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