This is the Griffith Observatory Sky Report for the week ending Wednesday, April 9, 2014. Here is what’s happening in the skies of southern California:
The moon gains in brightness this week, waxing from crescent to first quarter phase at 1:31 a.m., P.D.T. on April 7, and after that it is gibbous. The next full moon, on the night of April 14, will also be the occasion of a total lunar eclipse, ideally timed for observation from the west coast. This week, the moon sets an average of 41 minutes later on successive nights, and changes from 11:34 p.m. on the 2nd to 3:08 a.m. on the 9th. This period is ideal for using binoculars or telescopes to become familiar with the rugged detail visible along the moon’s terminator, the region between light and dark where long shadows are cast by sunrise on the moon.
Jupiter, in Gemini the Twins, becomes visible slightly to the southwest of the zenith (the point directly overhead) during evening twilight. The giant planet, brightest of the evening, can be seen until it sets in the west-northwest at 2:00 a.m. Binoculars, if held steadily, are sufficient to show Jupiter’s four largest moons, first reported by Galileo. A telescope can be used to observe the planet’s clouds, which are arranged by Jupiter’s rapid rotation into dark belts and bright zones. The famous oval storm, the Great Red Spot, will be visible at 8:00 p.m. from the west coast on April 2nd, 5th, and 7th. The moon appears close to Jupiter on the 6th.
The planet Mars, in Virgo the Maiden, is at opposition (directly opposite from the sun) on the night of April 8. The orange planet is visible nearly all night long, rising in the east-southeast at sunset, and setting in the west-southwest at sunrise. Mars is highest in the sky, 46 degrees above the southern horizon, at 1:00 a.m. The planet is also nearly at its closest point to the earth at this passage, 57.4 million miles. A high-quality telescope of at least 4-inches diameter and high magnification are required to glimpse the dusky markings, tiny north polar cap, and white clouds visible on the planet’s 15-arcsecond-wide disk. Mars will be well placed for early-evening viewing through Griffith Observatory’s telescopes in mid-April.
The ringed planet Saturn, in Libra the Scales, trails through the sky about two hours after Mars. It rises in the east-southeast at about 10:00 p.m., and is highest in the south at about 3:00 a.m. The planet appears as a brilliant golden star to the eye, and a telescope will show the northern face of Saturn’s magnificent ring system. Saturn will be shown from Griffith Observatory starting in May.
Blazing Venus, the brightest planet, appears in the southeast about two hours before sunrise. A telescope will reveal the gibbous phase of the planet.
The International Space Station makes two evening passes over Los Angeles this week. On Saturday, April 5, the ISS will cross the sky from west-southwest to north-northeast between 8:46 and 8:51 p.m., P.D.T. The brightness of the ISS should be comparable to Jupiter when it is at its highest, 54 degrees above the northwest horizon. On the following night, Sunday, April 6, the ISS will appear even brighter as it crosses the sky from southwest to northeast between 7:57 and 8:03 p.m., appearing nearly overhead at 8:00 p.m.
Free views of the sun during the day and of the moon, planets, and other celestial objects at night are available to the public in clear weather through Griffith Observatory’s telescopes from Tuesday through Sunday before 9:30 p.m. Check our website for our schedule. The next public star party on the grounds of Griffith Observatory, hosted by the Los Angeles Astronomical Society, the Sidewalk Astronomers, and the Planetary Society, will take place on Saturday, April 5. Griffith Observatory will also provide viewing of the total lunar eclipse on Monday night, April 14.
From Griffith Observatory, I’m Anthony Cook and I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.