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The Milky Way's Oldest and Wisest Stars - ScienceNOW - Mozilla Firefox_2012-09-04_15-47-10

Backyard AstronomyGeneral AstronomyMeteorsSolar System SimulatorPlanetarium Simulator Free Sky MapsFind Evening SatellitesApril's Night Sky

Backyard Astronomy

Are you fascinated by stars, comets, planets, and other celestial bodies you can glimpse in the night sky? Many aspiring astronomers start out at home, in their own backyard. It is possible to observe quite a lot about our solar system using basic telescopes or even the naked eye. There are also many tools that can help you identify what you’re seeing, and learn more about what’s out there at Home Adviser.



Celestia is a space software simulation to explore the universe in three dimensions. You can explore the Solar System or super clusters of galaxies and everything in between right from your desktop PC or Mac. The great thing about Celestia is that you are not confined to the surface of the Earth. You can change your vantage point to almost anywhere in the universe. Explore the moons orbiting other planets in our Solar System or our Moon. See eclipses and other events in real time. Best of all, Celestia is FREE to download.


Stellarium is free software that puts a planetarium on your desktop. The sky is presented in a very realistic way that is easy to comprehend. It contains a catalog of over 600,000 stars and more can be added as desired. Just set your latitude and longitude and you are all set. It has constellation artwork for twelve different cultures and all the Messier objects. It displays the Milky Way, planets and many other objects.

Star Chart Example

You can download free monthly star charts with information about sky events and objects that can be seen with the unaided eye, binoculars and telescopes.  

satellites in the evening sky

Track satellites like the ISS, space telescopes like Hubble or track notable comets and other satellites here. 

April brings renewal to the stars and planets of the morning and evening skies. What can you expect to see?

Jupiter, long a morning planet, comes into its own in the evening sky. On the 7th, Earth glides between the giant planet and the sun, an event called opposition because it places Jupiter opposite the sun. On that day Jupiter rises in the east at sunset and sets in the west around sunrise. In between, it travels the night sky in company with Spica, the brightest star in Virgo. Spica, however, is no match for the beacon that is Jupiter.


On the 10th, the full moon follows Jupiter on its nighttime journey. The moment of fullness comes at 1:08 a.m. on the 11th, when the moon, Jupiter and Spica will be near their highest point in the south. Many Algonquin Indians knew this moon as the full pink moon, for the flowering of grass pink or wild ground phlox at this time of year. Other names included the sprouting grass moon and the egg moon.

Venus, a fixture above the sunset horizon all winter, fell into the sunset in March and is reborn this month as a morning star. As it climbs steadily in the east, our sister planet moves farther away from Earth, gearing up for its next trip behind the sun. Look for it late in the month, around 40 minutes before sunrise. On the 23rd, an old crescent moon appears with the planet. Saturn also shines in the predawn hour, low in the south, just to the left of the red star Antares in Scorpius.

The real star of April is Leo, the lion, which reaches its highest point during the prime evening viewing hours this month. You’ll find it in the south, prancing westward with the night. The lion’s head is outlined by the famous Sickle of stars, anchored by Regulus, Leo’s brightest star. Just to the east is a triangle of stars marking the hindquarters and tail. At the eastern point of that triangle is Denebola, from the Arabic for “tail of the lion.”

But there’s a bigger triangle to be formed using stars of Leo. To see the “spring triangle,” first find the Big Dipper; in April it hangs upside down, high in the north, in the mid-evening hours. Next, follow the curve of its handle and “arc to Arcturus,” the brilliant star in the east. Then “speed on to Spica” by extending the curve again, being careful not to confuse Spica with Jupiter. As for the third star, you can make a nearly isosceles triangle by adding Regulus, or a more equilateral one by adding Denebola instead. Take your pick.

The Lyrid meteor shower is expected to peak in the predawn hours of the 22nd or 23rd, bringing 10 to 20 meteors per hour. Comet Thatcher left behind the dust that burns up in Earth’s atmosphere to generate these meteors. It last visited our part of the solar system in 1861, and it’s not expected back with a new shipment of meteoric dust until 2276.

Source: International Falls Journal