The native tribes of eastern North America were keen observers of the night sky, especially the moon.
They kept track of the seasons by naming the recurring full moons throughout the year. These names applied to the entire month in which the full moon occurred and usually reflected some natural event that happened during that particular month.
Early European settlers to North America often adopted the native custom of naming the full moon but usually gave the full moons names of their own.
April’s full moon (April 19) was often called the “pink moon” because of the wild, pink ground phlox that bloomed in this month. It was also referred to as the “fish moon because the shad, an important food source for both the native tribes and the settlers living along the coast, usually entered the rivers during April. Other names were “sprouting grass moon and “egg moon” for the eggs the many wild fowl species would start laying in April and which were collected as a food source.
Mars (mag. +1.4) remains the only bright planet visible in the evening sky this month, though it continues to fade in brightness. Visible high in the western sky as it begins to darken, Mars sits in the constellation of Taurus – the Bull – with the Red Planet, remaining visible until after nightfall. As the month closes out, Mars sinks lower towards the afterglow of the setting sun in the evening sky.
- April 19 - Full “pink moon”
- April 22-23 - Lyrid meteor shower peak; night/predawn
- April 26 - Last quarter moon
- April 28 - Moon at apogee; furthest from Earth
At mid-month, Jupiter (mag. –2.5) rises in the eastern sky shortly before midnight, but about two and a half hours after sunset by month’s end. During the predawn hours, Jupiter is close to the bright star Antares (“rival of Mars”) in the constellation of Scorpius – the Scorpion – in the SSW sky, appearing to draw closer to this star as the month progresses. Look for Jupiter just to the left of the waning, gibbous moon in the SSW sky on April 23, about 45 minutes before sunrise.
Saturn (mag. +0.5) follows Jupiter into the night sky around 1 a.m., sitting to the left of Jupiter in the predawn, southern sky. Like Jupiter, Saturn, in the constellation of Sagittarius – the Archer, climbs higher and higher in the predawn sky as April progresses. Look for the waning, gibbous moon to the right of Saturn in the southern sky about 45 minutes before sunrise on April 24.
Bright Venus (mag. –3.9), our “morning star,” appears above the ESE horizon about one hour before sunrise during the latter half of the month. It rises after the beginning of what is termed “astronomical twilight,” when the geometric centre of the sun is 12 to 16 degrees below the horizon, and the eastern horizon begins to brighten slightly. Unless you live under a very dark sky, it is hard to distinguish astronomical twilight from the night sky; all but the faintest of stars are usually still visible in the predawn, eastern sky. Venus is slowly sinking towards the glow of the rising sun this month and will soon be lost in that glow. Look for the thin, faint, crescent moon to the upper right of Venus on the last morning of the month and even closer to Venus on the morning of May 1.
Mercury (mag. +0.1) makes a brief appearance close to, and to the lower right of Venus through the balance of April. However, you will need a pair of binoculars and a clear view of the eastern horizon to spot it near its bright sibling about one hour before sunrise.
The Lyrid meteor shower (radiant in Lyra – the Harp constellation) peaks on the night/predawn of April 22-23. Unfortunately, the waning, gibbous moon will rise around midnight, washing out all but the brightest meteors in the sky.
The Lyrids will start appearing just after the sky darkens, so some of the brighter meteors should be visible from the northeast to the west before moonrise.
The Lyrids are debris from Comet Thatcher, discovered April 5, 1861, by A.E. Thatcher, which has an orbital period (its elliptical track out into space and back in around our sun) of 415 years. The Lyrids are considered one of the oldest recorded meteor showers in history, with indications appearing in Chinese astronomical writings 2,500 years ago.
Until next month, clear skies.
Glenn K. Roberts lives in Stratford, P.E.I., and has been an avid amateur astronomer since he was a small child. His column, Atlantic Skies, appears every two weeks. He welcomes comments from readers, and anyone who would like to do so is encouraged to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.