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The changing of the guard


April evenings are a little more comfortable for stargazers, but there are trade-offs. Later sunsets mean a later start for your stargazing.

Another trade-off is that the winter constellations, the best and brightest, in my opinion, are heading for the celestial exits. As April progresses, the mighty constellation Orion the Hunter and his gang of bright stars and constellations begin the evenings lower and lower in the western Butler sky. Eventually, they'll disappear entirely until late next autumn. Enjoy the best array of constellations while you can!

In early April, all of Orion's gang is still prominently displayed in the western half of the sky. Orion the Hunter is the leading player. It's one of the few constellations that actually resembles what it's supposed to be, and it's pretty easy to envision it as a muscular man's torso.

Surrounding Orion are the constellations Taurus the Bull, resembling a small downward pointing arrow; Auriga the Chariot driver turned goat farmer; Gemini the Twins; and Canis Major and Canis Minor, Orion's large and small hunting dogs, respectively.

The brightest star in the entire night sky is Sirius, denoting the nose of Canis Major. Again, by the end of April, most of these winter shiners will be below the horizon as darkness sets in.

Among the winter constellations in the west are three naked-eye planets, Venus, Mercury and Mars. The brightest one is Venus.

Despite its brilliance, it's not very interesting through a telescope, as it's entirely covered by a very opaque and poisonous atmosphere.

During the first half of April, Venus will put on an outstanding show that you can see with just your naked eyes as it passes by the Pleiades, the best and brightest star cluster in the heavens. To the naked eye, the Pleiades cluster resembles a tiny Big Dipper.

As April begins, Venus will shine a little below the Pleiades in the low western sky after evening twilight. Venus and the Pleiades will gradually approach each other from night to night. On April 10, 11 and 12, Venus will be just to the left of the Pleiades. Venus and the cluster should fit easily in the same field of view through binoculars or a small telescope. Don't miss the Venus-Pleiades show!

Meanwhile, the spring constellations are in the eastern half of the early evening sky. They're certainly not as flashy as Orion and the rest of the winter constellations in the west, but they possess many celestial treasures.

You just have to dig a little deeper for them. In the high southeastern sky, look for a backward question mark that outlines the head and chest of the constellation Leo the Lion. The moderately bright star Regulus marks the "period" of the question mark.

To the lower left of Regulus is a small but distinct triangle that makes up the lion's rear and tail. The small constellation Corvus the Crow is much lower in the southeast sky. Look for a lopsided diamond hovering just above the horizon. It looks nothing like a crow, but it is still one of my favorite constellations.

In the northern heavens look for the Big Dipper climbing higher and higher in the northeastern sky this month and then gradually turning upside down. The Big Dipper is not an official constellation, and it's an asterism, or pattern of stars, that outlines the rear end and the tail of the larger official constellation Ursa Major, the Big Bear. The Big Dipper is the brightest part of the beast.

Use the two "pointer stars" that make up the side of the Big Dipper's pot, opposite the handle, to find Polaris, the North Star. Polaris is about three fist-widths at arm's length down and to the left from the pointer stars. Polaris holds court at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper, otherwise known as Ursa Minor, the Little Bear.

This month's full moon, popularly known as the Pink Moon, is this week on April 6. For about six nights on either side of any full moon, evening stargazing is hampered by moonlight washing out the sky. Faint telescope targets like galaxies and nebula get lost in the glow.

The second half of this April will be much more user-friendly, with darker skies in the early evening.

Not this April but on April 8, 2024, there will be a total solar eclipse over parts of the United States, Canada and Central America. Put that on your calendar now!

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of "Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations," published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and Contact him at

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