What to Look For in the Night Sky in March and April
The Spring Equinox is approaching, which means warmer temperatures are on the way. This is great news for those who aren’t fans of shivering while trying to look through a telescope!
Before we get to the list of what to watch for above your own perch of dirt, don’t forget NASA’s Perseverance Rover is now sending back lots of great media to consume on a daily and/or weekly basis. You can check out the latest images in this gallery. The cover photo for this article is the first high-resolution image from Perseverance’s hazard camera after its landing on Mars on February 18th.
This list will be filled with highlights, but if you want to a more comprehensive list of what’s happening on a daily basis be sure to check out EarthSky’s “tonight” feature.
March 6th – 10th: Mercury’s Greatest Elongation & The Moon
Mercury, the closest planet to the sun, will be at its greatest elongation on March 6th. This means Mercury is well positioned away from the sun (from our vantage point on Earth) for viewing! You should be able to spot the tiny planet above the eastern horizon before sunrise.
What’s even better than spotting Mercury? Seeing it next to the solar system’s largest planets and the moon!
Thanks to EarthSky.org for the great illustration above.
In the mornings following Mercury’s greatest elongation, the planet should still be relatively easy to find next to Jupiter and Saturn. The waning crescent moon will also be appearing increasingly closer to the planetary trio from March 8th through the 10th, with all three within a few degrees of each other on the 10th. Despite Mercury being much closer to us and at near its greatest elongation, it still may be difficult to see without a telescope or binoculars if you live in an area with light pollution.
Look toward the eastern horizon an hour before sunrise to try to spot the quartet.
March 20th: Vernal Equinox
Spring in the Northern Hemisphere arrives on March 20th, 2021 this year at 9:37 UTC, 5:37 EDT.
At the time of the equinox, Earth will neither be tilted toward nor away from the sun. During the day, the sun’s most direct rays will be directly over the equator, giving both hemispheres nearly equal amounts of day and night. The fastest sunsets and sunrises (the time it takes for the sun to rise or set after it initially appears to break the horizon) are also on this day.
April 21-22nd: Lyrid Meteor Shower
On the night of April 21, the 2012 Lyrid meteor shower peaked in the skies over Earth. While NASA allsky cameras were looking up at the night skies, astronaut Don Pettit aboard the International Space Station trained his video camera on Earth below. Image Credit: NASA
The Lyrids are typically an average meteor shower, but can produce upwards of 100 meteor per hour during peak years and are known for leaving lingering trails of dust. Peak years are often difficult to predict, but it still may be worth watching for a few hours if the weather cooperates.
An average Lyrid shower will produce around 20 meteors per hour during the peak under optimal viewing conditions away from light pollution.
This year’s shower will be hampered a bit by the waxing moon, leaving all but the brightest meteors hidden while it’s above the horizon. The good news is that during its peak, the moon will still be setting 1-3 hours before the sun rises, leaving a short window to try to catch the Lyrids at their best.
Try to watch after the moon sets during the mornings of the 20th through the 22nd. You’ll have more time between moonset and sunrise on the 20th.
As with all meteor showers, try to watch in a location far away from city lights after midnight. Don’t focus on one point in the sky, instead try to look broadly at as much sky as possible. Lawn chairs or loungers and blankets will help to make things more comfortable.
April 26th/27th – Full Moon & Supermoon
Not that the moon isn’t always super, but April’s full moon will really be super when it’s full!
What does that mean? The moon’s distance to the Earth varies in its orbit, just as Earth’s distance to the sun varies depending on its orbital position.
A supermoon occurs when the moon is close to the point in its orbit when its closest to the Earth (perigee) while being full. This leaves us Earthlings with a moon that appears bigger and brighter than average. Check out the NASA animation above for a demonstration.
The April full moon is also known as the pink moon, the sprouting grass moon, the fish moon, and the egg moon.