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April skies of the Gulf Coast

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EAAA photographer Floyd Griffith images the bluish circular Owl Nebula (M-97, note the two eyes!) and the spiral galaxy, M-108 (the Surfboard); both these are visible with a 4” telescope.

For April 2022, the first quarter moon is on April 8. The Full Moon, the Paschal Moon, is on April 16, and sets the next day as Easter Sunday. This is the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox. The Last Quarter Moon is on April 23. In the dawn sky, the waning crescent moon makes a triangle below Saturn (to right) and Mars (right) on April 25, then lies just below brilliant Venus and slightly fainter Jupiter in the southeast about 45 minutes before sunrise on April 27, the second, third, and fourth brightest objects in the sky in the same binocular field of view. What a photo op! The New Moon is on April 30.

Mercury is visible just below the Pleiades cluster in the northwest starting the third week of April and remains visible after sunset for the rest of the month. Venus is in the dawn sky, and is overtaking fainter Jupiter this month, passing within a moon’s diameter (.5 degrees) on April 30, a fine sight with naked eyes, binocs, and low power telescopes. Note the four moons of Jupiter and the gibbous phase of Venus now. Mars lies in Aquarius in the dawn, and Saturn lies about 14 degrees west of Mars. On April 25, Mars lies exactly halfway between Saturn to the right and brilliant Venus to the lower right. The planets will finally start coming back into the evening skies by July.

While the naked eye, dark-adapted by several minutes away from any bright lights, is a wonderful instrument to stare up into deep space, far beyond our own Milky Way, binoculars are better for spotting specific deep sky objects. For a detailed map, visit Skymaps.com

Yellow Capella, a giant star the same temperature and color as our much smaller Sun, dominates the northwestern sky. It is part of the pentagon on stars making up Auriga, the Charioteer. Several nice binocular Messier open clusters are found in the winter milky way here. East of Auriga, the twins, Castor and Pollux highlight the Gemini. South of Gemini, Orion is the most familiar winter constellation, dominating the southern sky at dusk. The reddish supergiant Betelguese marks his eastern shoulder, while blue-white supergiant Rigel stands opposite on his west knee. Just south of the belt, hanging like a sword downward, is M-42, the Great Nebula of Orion, an outstanding binocular and telescopic stellar nursery. The bright diamond of four stars that light it up is the trapezium cluster, one of the finest sights in a telescope. In the east are the hunter’s two faithful companions, Canis major, and minor. Procyon is the bright star in the little dog and rises minutes before Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. At eight light-years distance, Sirius is the closest star we can easily see with the naked eye from West Florida.

To the northeast, look for the Big Dipper rising, with the top two stars of the bowl, the pointers, giving you a line to find Polaris, the Pole Star. Look for Mizar-Alcor, a nice naked-eye double star, in the bend of the big dipper’s handle.

Take the pointers at the front of the dipper’s bowl south instead to the head of Leo, looking much like the profile of the famed Sphinx. The bright star at Lion’s heart is Regulus, the “regal star." Now take the curved handle of the Big Dipper, and follow the arc southeast to bright orange Arcturus, the brightest star of the spring sky. Recent studies of its motion link it to the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy, a companion of our Milky Way being tidally disrupted and spilling its stars above and below the plane of the Milky Way, much like dust falling away from a decomposing comet nucleus. So this brightest star of Bootes the Bear Driver is apparently a refugee from another galaxy, but also a member of our Local Group of Galaxies above.

Out at the edge of our Galaxy are hundreds of globular star clusters, and one of the finest lies just east of Arcturus. It is the third entry in Messier’s listing of smudges in the sky that did not move and thus were not his beloved comets. M-3 is visible as a compact blur in binoculars and resolves itself into thousands of stars at about 100X in scopes six inches or larger. Many more globulars will join it in the eastern sky in the next few hours, with over 100 in range of amateur scopes.

Now spike south to Spica, the blue-white gem in Virgo rising in the southeast. Virgo is home to many galaxies, as we look away from the obscuring gas and dust in the plane of the Milky Way into deep space. To the southwest of Spica is the four-sided Crow, Corvus. To the ancient Greeks, Spica was associated with Persephone, daughter of Ceres, goddess of the harvest. She was abducted by her suitor Pluto, carried down to Hades (going to Hell for a honeymoon), and when Jupiter worked out a compromise between the newlyweds and the angry mother-in-law, the agreement dictated Persephone come back to the earth’s surface for six months of the year, and Mama Ceres was again placated, and the crops could grow again. As you see Spica rising in the southeast, it is time to “plant your peas”, and six months from now, when Spica again disappears in the sun’s glare in the southwest.

Escambia Amateur Astronomers return to Casino Beach for our Pavilion Stargaze Season on the first quarter moon. Meet us south of the famed Beach Ball Water Tower and bring your smartphone to image the Sun (before sunset with our solar scopes), Moon, and constellations. We have free star charts and will show you what’s up. The gazes, if clear skies permit, will be on the Fridays and Saturdays for April 8-9, May 6-7, June 3-4, (none in July due to Blue Angel Crowds), August 5-6, September 2-3, and the last on September 20 and October 1st.

For deep skies with much less light pollution, on the weekends of the third-quarter moon, we continue our cooperation with the Florida State Parks at Big Lagoon State Park. While the Pavilion parking is free, normal entry fees to Big Lagoon still apply and remember to check-in at the front gate before it closes at sunset. Our gazes for best imaging of the Milky Way, constellations, and other galaxies are on these weekends: April 8-9, April 22-23, May 20-21, June 17-18, July 22-23, August 19-20, September 16-17, and October 14-15. Clear skies permitting!

For Okaloosa and Walton Counties, the Northwest Florida Amateur Astronomers will also host public gazes this summer at a variety of venues. On April 8, they will be at Topsail Hill Preserve SP. On May 6, they will be at the HSU STEM range. On June 18, they are at Henderson Beach SP. On July 2, back to TopSail Hill. Picturesque Eden State Gardens in Point Washington are the site for September 16. Back to Henderson Beach on October 14th, and the final gaze for 2022 will be at Topsail on November 11. For more on their activities and meetings, access them on the web at www.nwfastro.org.

For more information on the Escambia Amateur Astronomers, join us on Facebook or visit our website.

Dr. John Wayne Wooten has been teaching science since 1970, with a special concentration on astronomy. He received his Doctor of Education in Astronomy from University of Florida in 1979. He was an educator at Pensacola State College since 1974 and University of West Florida since 1984 before retiring in 2017. He still continues to teach distance learning astronomy for Tennessee colleges.