Venus- by John Hlynialuk

April's weather has been more snowy then showery, but I am sure this unusual bout of winter will give way to a more normal spring as May approaches. Waiting for us behind those clouds are two of the most beautiful sights in astronomy, the Evening Star, Venus and the most beautiful cluster of stars in the entire sky apart from the Milky Way itself, the Seven Sisters, or the Pleiades. Dust off your binoculars!

Venus will continue to reign as Evening Star, the brightest star in the entire sky after sunset until well into fall. There will be no lack of opportunity to gaze on her brightness as she tracks along the stars of the ecliptic, passing through the zodiac constellations Taurus, Cancer, Gemini, Leo and finally Virgo before she drops back into the Sun's glare in mid-September. We have 6 months of Venus-watching to look forward to! There is even a return of Mercury to the western sky to look forward to, -once again we will have a second Evening Star to observe. Look for the pair in mid-July.

However, the time to observe the Pleiades is much shorter. They are quickly dropping towards the Sun's glare in the western sky and by the first week of May, they will only be visible in the twilight above the sunset point. So make an effort to get out and have a look in the current "dark-of-the-Moon" period, -about a week before and after New Moon on April 15.

The Pleiades were among the first objects viewed by Galileo in 1610 with his improved version of the "spyglass". He did not actually invent the telescope -that credit probably should go to Hans Lippershey of the Netherlands, but Lippershey's applied-for patent was never granted. Lenses for spectacles were common at the time and anyone could put two different lenses in a tube and make a simple magnifying device. Galileo greatly improved the instrument and turned it on the heavens rather than on earthly objects.

There is a working replica of Galileo's telescope at the Fox Observatory and I have used it to look at Jupiter and some other stellar objects. Even with modern lenses, the views through the replica are not great. It makes one appreciate Galileo's observing skill because even with his poorer instrument, he was able to make major astronomical discoveries, which turned the science of the time on its head. He discovered a miniature solar system of four moons around Jupiter, craters on the Moon, and spots on the Sun as well as phases on the planet Venus that can only be explained by Venus circling the Sun according to the Copernican sun-centred system. It was as important a revolution in thinking as the discovery of atoms, for example, in modern times.

Galileo's view of the Pleiades, a spectacular cluster in any telescope, was similar to his views of the stars in the Milky Way which he described as "congeries of innumerable stars... an immense number of stars immediately offer themselves to view...the magnitude of small ones is truly unfathomable." He would have been astounded had he seen them in an ordinary pair of modern binoculars.

Now is the time to check out Venus, and the Pleiades in the western sky. The Moon is not brightening the sky much from New Moon (Apr 15) to First Quarter (Apr 22). And even with the Moon raging Full on Apr 29, the Pleiades are still a pretty sight with dozens of fainter stars visible in addition to the 6 or 7 bright ones seen with the naked eye. Watch Venus slipping between the Pleiades and Hyades in the last weeks of April. Key dates are Apr 26 (see diagram) when Venus is just east (left) of the Pleiades and west of the V-shaped group of stars that form the face of Taurus the Bull. This group, the Hyades, a larger and closer cluster, is also worth exploration with your binoculars.

And if you can wait until the Milky Way rises above the SE horizon around 3 am in April (or much earlier in the summer), train your binos on the "unfathomable" numbers of stars you will find there. Oh my, the sights you will see! Make sure you are sitting down. A reclining lawn chair is the most comfortable way to view the heavens with binoculars, in any case.

Do consider joining us Apr 21 after dark at the Fox Observatory for Astronomy Day viewing, weather-permitting! Binoculars will, of course, be available. Clear skies!






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