April 2016 events and naked eye viewing

By Gary Zientara

April 18 (Monday) Mercury at Maximum Elongation East.  Best chance of seeing Mercury after sunset until it happens again on August 16.

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Mercury at Maximum Elongation East will be about 15 degrees (one and a half fist widths at arm’s length) above an unobstructed western horizon about 30 minutes after sunset. It may be too low for some Taos Pines Ranch residents to see without climbing to near the top of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range (about 9 to 10 thousand feet).  Note: All Star Charts Courtesy of Sky Guide App
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First Rock from the Sun. At first glance, most of us would think that this is a picture of our Moon. Instead, it’s what you would have seen were you aboard NASA’s Mariner 10 spacecraft during its flyby of Mercury on March 24, 1974. If I had a “super” telescope that was unaffected by Earth’s atmosphere and the glow of the setting Sun, this is what I’d see when Mercury is at maximum elongation east when the planet is at it’s “half moon” phase. Mercury is a bit larger than our Moon and about 1/3 the size of Earth. It’s the planet with the greatest temperature changes in our Solar System because of it’s closeness to the Sun, almost nonexistant atmosphere, and a night that lasts longer than its year! Temperatures on Mercury range from 800 degrees Fahrenheit on the daylight side to 298 degrees below zero Fahrenheit on the night side. That’s a 1,098 degree temperature swing! Only Neptune is colder and Venus hotter than Mercury.

April 22 (Friday) Full Pink or Phlox Moon.  This has nothing to do with the color of the Moon and everything to do with the time of year when Phlox (one of the earliest flowers of Spring) blooms.  This may not be the case for the Taos Pines Ranch area.  Last Spring we were inundated with irises most likely because of the record rainfall we had.  This year is drier so far.  It’s hard to say which flowers we’ll see blooming first.

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Binocular Highlights

A Comparison…M44 and M67.  These are two bright star clusters close to each other in the sky, but one is 5 times farther away than the other.  Last month, I talked about the Beehive Cluster (Praesepe or M44) and provided an image of part of it.  This month, it’s a good idea to revisit M44 and compare it to the nearby M67.  Both open star clusters are visible in binoculars.  I looked on the Internet for some full field images, but all the good ones are copyrighted, so you’ll just have to wait until next month’s issue for some images from Mount Sangre Observatory if you don’t get see them for yourself.

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There will be no glare from the Moon to interfere with your binocular views of M44 and M67 from April 1 through 9, so I picked the middle (April 5) for this sky image to find these two beautiful open star clusters. This is how the sky will look at prime viewing time high above the SE horizon. I’ve connected the stars that outline Leo the Lion and included the alpha star from Canis Minor (Procyon) to help you locate these objects. It’s interesting to note that besides being much farther away than M44, the stars in M67 are also much older (4 billion years vs 600 million years). Don’t forget to have another peek at Jupiter (the brightest object below Leo). Even though Jupiter was at opposition last month, it’s higher in the sky during the same time period this month and almost as bright too.

Telescopic Highlights

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There are 43 galaxies In the Virgo Cluster that are visible in an 8″ telescope on a moonless night.   The galaxies range in brightness from the best, M104 the Sombrero Galaxy at magnitude 8.1, to the dimmest at magnitude 10.5.  May will be the best month to view these galaxies because they’ll be higher in the sky, but weather might be a factor, so why not take a “preview” look in April?  Best days will be April 1 through 9 and 25 through 30 when the Moon won’t interfere.  Remember that the days are getting longer, so you should look about an hour later around 8:30 PM MDT toward the end of the month.  I’ll attempt to image these galaxies so you can have a second look in IN CASE YOU MISSED IT next month.

In Case You Missed It

All 26 participants from the Moreno Valley Trekkers and friends had a great time during the week long tour of the Mount Sangre Observatory in early March.  The theme for observing was “A Star’s Life.”  We used the Mount Sangre Telescope to view “baby stars” still nestled in their cloudy cradles to “toddlers” crawling away from their birth places to “teen agers” starting to venture away from home.  Weather and time permitting, some got an extra bonus of seeing far away galaxies and Jupiter and its moons.  The events were (in part) to help raise funds to build a 10′ x 10′ SkyShed roll-off-roof observatory that will house a 10 inch Meade ACF GPS fully automated telescope at the Girl Scouts of New Mexico Trails Elliott Barker campground.  Last summer’s astronomy program was so successful, that the regional director of the Girl Scouts of America authorized this permanent structure.  A special trail called “Star Trek” has already been completed.  The mile long trail connects the main camp area with a high meadow far away from any light pollution interference.

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This observatory will make it much easier to handle the rather large telescope that a local Angel Fire resident generously donated to the Girl Scout camp last year. As you can see, the SkyShed is designed to handle our snowy winters as well. Note how the roof (on tracks and rollers identical to those of a garage door) rolls off over a scaffold attached to the shed. Special thanks to all in our community who donated funding to build the SkyShed. Construction is scheduled for early May so that it’ll be complete by the time the Scouts arrive in June.

This observatory will make it much easier to handle the rather large telescope that a local Angel Fire resident generously donated to the Girl Scout camp last year.  As you can see, the SkyShed is designed to handle our snowy winters as well.  Note how the roof (on tracks and rollers identical to those of a garage door) rolls off over a scaffold attached to the shed.  Special thanks to all in our community who donated funding to build the SkyShed.  Construction is scheduled for early May so that it’ll be complete by the time the Scouts arrive in June.

Everyone’s getting into the act! The Moreno Valley Trekkers, Moreno Valley High School, Rotary Club, and Alpine Lumber are all pitching in to promote this new edition at Camp Elliot Barker. The Sky Shed observatory will be used to introduce the Girl Scouts and the public to the science of astronomy. The excellent dark skies in this part of New Mexico provide a perfect location to peer into the depths of deep space.

Construction of the Sky Shed will begin in early May and should be complete in time for a series of star parties to be held weekly at Camp Elliott Barker from June through August. The telescope to be mounted in the Sky Shed is a 10 inch Meade GPS fully automated reflector that is capable of resolving everything from asteroids, comets, and planets to deep space star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies.

 

Editor’s Note — Gary Zientara of Taos Pines Ranch near Angel Fire is a former teacher and lifelong amateur astronomer. Find a link to his monthly astronomy webpage at taospines.com.