Heads up: Stars and planets you can see from your backyard

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April has some amazing astronomy activities you can do in your own backyard. Venus will shine at its brightest on April 27th and the moon can be seen with the dazzling star cluster Messier 35.

“When one looks toward the southwest just after dark, Venus is the most prominent object in the night sky after the moon,” said Physicist André Bormanis to the Los Angeles Times. “Venus is currently about 60 million miles away from the Earth. Which means it took the light from Venus about six minutes to hit your eye. You’re seeing Venus six minutes in the past.”

Bormanis has a master’s degree in science, technology, and public policy from George Washington University.

If you’re preparing to view the night sky remember to bundle up, according to Space.com.

Also in the southwest sky the Pleiades are inside the constellation of Taurus the Bull. Just after dusk, look a bit below and to the right of the waxing crescent moon. “That’s an open star cluster 440 light-years away.” said Bormanis. “The light that you’re seeing left that star cluster 440 years ago, which, if I’m correct, is 1580 — 30 years before Galileo first turned a telescope toward the night sky.”

Give your eyes 15 to 20 minutes to adjust to the night sky which will even make a difference in light-polluted areas. If you need to use a flashlight to view a star map or adjust equipment, try to tape something red over it like construction paper or foil. Download a red filter app for phone screens to reduce glare.

“Orion is very prominent low in the southwest. It is facing Taurus the Bull. Orion is trying to slay Taurus the Bull, in fact”

“Orion’s hunting dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor, are to his left.”

“The brightest star in Canis Major is Sirius, the dog star, and it’s the brightest star in the sky.” To find it, look low in the southwest sky, to the left of Orion.

Betelgeuse marks Orion’s right arm and “has been behaving strangely in recent months. It’s been dimming. It is a red supergiant star, destined to end its life in a supernova explosion. We don’t know when. It will be sometime in the next few hundred thousand years, most probably.”

Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are all easily visible without any special equipment, but with a telescope, you can even see Saturn’s rings or Jupiter’s moons.

“If you go out under the predawn sky, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter are doing a little dance in the southeast.” And if you watch them from morning to morning, “you can watch their relative positions changing. We’re all orbiting the sun in the same direction. Mars is the next planet out from Earth, then Jupiter, then Saturn. So it takes Earth one year to go around the sun. It takes Mars a little over two years. It takes Jupiter 12 years. And Saturn, 30 years.”

If you have binoculars, “look beneath the belt of Orion at his sword sheath. One of the ‘stars’ in that sheath will look a little fuzzy. That’s the Orion Nebula, a huge complex of gas and dust where stars are being born. It’s a stellar nursery about 1,500 light-years from Earth.”

On April 29th, a feature on the moon known as Lunar X will be visible with binoculars and backyard telescopes. This is an X-shaped feature that is created when the craters of Parbach, la Caille, and Blanchinus are lit up by sunlight from a certain angle.

Also on the 29th, the asteroid 1998 OR2 will safely pass by Earth at a distance 3.9 million miles. This asteroid won’t hit Earth but will make a great target for advanced skywatchers with telescopes.

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