Starry nights get warmer, but shorter

  • By Mike Lynch / Special to The Herald
  • Friday, April 28, 2006 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

This is the time of year when you can’t get started with any serious stargazing until 10 p.m. It’s like we traded in the challenge of cold weather and frostbite for sleep deprivation. Despite the late start you’ll be rewarded with some pretty good stuff as we say goodbye to the last of the wintertime constellations in the western skies and say hello to some of the summer delights coming up in the east.

In the western skies it’s the final curtain call for the last of the winter constellations, Orion and others. As soon as darkness sets in, about 9:30 to 10 p.m., Orion itself will start to set on the western horizon. Just off to the left of the falling hunter will be the bright star Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, about 50 trillion miles away.

Just above Orion you’ll see two twin stars right next to each other. Those are Castor and Pollux, the brightest stars in the constellation Gemini, marking the heads of the twins Castor and Pollux. Oh, and that brighter star just to the upper left of Castor and Pollux is the wonderful planet Saturn. If you want to view Saturn through a telescope, make sure you do it as soon as it’s dark enough to see it, because around 10:30 it will be low enough in the western sky to be messed up by Earth’s blurring atmosphere.

If you face north and look nearly overhead, the Big Dipper will appear to be dumping out on top of you. The Big Dipper is always upside down in the evening this time of year and according to old American folklore, that’s why we have so much rain in the spring – and of course, mostly on the weekends. Technically the Big Dipper is only the rear end and tail of the constellation Ursa Major, the Big Bear, but it is the brightest part of the great beast.

Elsewhere in the northern sky is the Little Dipper lying on its handle, with the North Star, Polaris, at the end of the handle. Cassiopeia the Queen, the one that looks like the big W, is very low in the northwestern sky.

The brightest star in the evening sky, rising in the east, isn’t a star at all, but Jupiter, the king of the planets. You can’t help but see it rising in the southeast toward the end of evening twilight. It’s a little less than 410 million miles away, and even with a small telescope, it’s possible to see up to four of Jupiter’s moons and at least some of the vast cloud bands that stripe the great planet.

There are also a couple of good shows on the celestial stage next week. Early Friday and Saturday mornings, there will be a minor meteor shower going on mainly in the east-southeastern sky. It’s called the Eta Aquarids, since the meteors seem to radiate from the direction of the faint constellation Aquarius. The best time to see them is between 4 and 5 a.m., and what makes it so good this year is that the moon will be absent from the skies, leaving them darker and more meteor friendly. You may see 20 to 30 meteors an hour, vaporizing about 80 miles up .

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO radio in Minneapolis and author of the new book “Washington Starwatch,” available at bookstores and on his Web site,

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