Sights for a Dark Night
Bright planets and shooting stars dazzle this week
As the sun sets, Jupiter shines high in the southwest, smack-dab in the middle of the constellation Gemini, its bright stars Castor and Pollux a few degrees away toward the celestial zenith. By midnight the king of the planets hovers above the horizon and sets within another hour.
By that time, Mars is high in the south. Just days past opposition, the red planet is visible from dusk until dawn. It is also at its closest to Earth in six years. If you have a telescope, you’ll want to aim it at our planetary neighbor, which won’t appear so large in a view-piece again for two years. Mars shines in the constellation Virgo, with its blue-white alpha star Spica trailing by 10 degrees. As daybreak arrives, they are low against the west horizon.
In the hour before sunrise, Venus dominates the east, brighter than anything but the sun and moon. The Morning Star doesn’t climb high above the horizon, which only adds to its splendor as its light shimmers and sparkles like a kaleidoscope as it passes through Earth’s atmosphere.
The dark hours between Tuesday and Wednesday mark the peak of this year’s Lyrid Meteor Shower. The best viewing is between midnight and daybreak, when you might spot up to 20 meteors an hour, some with long trails burning for several seconds. The waning crescent moon rises around 3am and could dampen the showing. But keep your eyes peeled through the week when errant meteors could still streak across the sky.