starry night at Woodland Caribou PP

Eyes on the skies — April

Welcome to the Ontario Parks “Eyes on the Skies” series. This space (<– see what we did there?) will cover a wide range of astronomy topics with a focus on what can be seen from the pristine skies found in our provincial parks.

For those of us in Ontario, April is that transition month between winter and spring weather. The snows start to melt away, the lakes start to open up and, by month’s end, the first buds may appear on the trees.

Here are our astronomical highlights for April, 2018:

The sun

The sun, having passed the Spring Equinox, continues to rise (and set) further north of due east (and due west). And, as usual, when the sun appears more northerly in the sky, the full moon that month appears almost equally further south.

Sunrise and sunset times:

April 1 April 15 April 30
Sunrise 7:05 am 6:39 am 6:14 am
Midday 1:29 pm 1:26 pm 1:23 pm
Sunset 7:54 pm 8:13 pm 8:32 pm

The moon

moonrise

April’s phases of the moon occur as follows:

Moon phases

The planets

Venus has dropped out of sight for evening viewers and is now only visible in the morning sky (albeit not for a few weeks into April). Mercury, however, is prominent at the beginning of the month before it too drops below the western horizon at sunset.

mercuryLike Venus, Mercury goes through phases as it orbits the sun. Also, like Venus, Mercury can be sighted in the evening sky and sometimes in the morning sky but never is visible too far away from the sun.

Unlike Venus, however, Mercury has practically no atmosphere and it has a very strange rotation rate. Mercury is in what is known as a tidal resonance with the sun; Mercury rotates three times for every two orbits around the sun. As a result of this peculiar behavior, there are times in which the sun appears to never move as viewed from the surface of Mercury.

Mercury, the closest planet to the sun, is never very far away from the sun. As a result, viewing Mercury is quite challenging (even though it is actually one of the brightest planets). The best way to view Mercury is to watch for it when it is far from the sun (such as April 1), and to ensure that you have a great western horizon such as from the Agawa Bay Campgrounds at Lake Superior Provincial Park.

Featured constellations: the Bears and a Dragon

bear constellation

In last month’s blog, we discussed some of the constellations that are prominent in the spring: Leo the Lion, Cancer the Crab and Coma Berenices (Queen Berenice of Egypt’s hair).

This month, we will focus on two of the most well-known, as well as one of the longest, constellations visible in the night sky: Ursa Major, the Great Bear (Big Dipper) and Ursa Minor, the Little Bear (Little Dipper).

For more information on this month’s constellations, click here.

Meteor Showers

shoreline tent, starry skies

The Lyrid Meteor Shower

The Lyrid Meteor Shower peaks on the morning of April 22, with somewhere around several dozen meteors per hour visible in early morning skies. Meteors with this shower seem to originate back to the constellation of Lyra the Harp, which is more prominent during the summer.

Late April Fireballs

When a meteor becomes very bright, brighter than Venus, it is often given the title of fireball!

For reasons still not completely clear to science, there are a large number of fireballs that can be seen in the last week of April. These meteors are not related to the ones coming from Lyra as they are slower, brighter, and seem to come from Corvus the Crow (much further south during the spring season).

Between the Lyrids and the Late April Fireballs, an observer should have a great final week or two observing the April night skies.

Did you know…

…you can determine your direction without a compass or GPS?

It would be wonderful if we had a built-in system to help us tell direction. If we did, it would probably have saved many lives who became lost by travelling away from safety rather than towards it.

For more information on how you can tell direction using the sun and stars, visit this post.

This completes our review of April skies…

Remember to bundle up and enjoy the view from our parks. The stars await those who make the effort to enjoy them!