Image of Sputnik 1 from Air and Space Museum
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Morrison Planetarium's hub for the latest out-of-this-world news, from meteor showers to space exploration events.

Planets on parade!

Diagram of planet position in night sky on June 24, 2022

This season, weather permitting, planet-watchers are in for a good time about an hour before sunrise as early-risers can enjoy the sight of at least four planets visible without optical aid forming several neat configurations in the southeast, with the Moon dropping by occasionally for some pretty pairings. Some of these are detailed in the individual listings in our Planets section, but here are some special dates to keep in mind:

  • April 1: Venus, Saturn, and Mars form a short line about 6° long in the southeast about an hour before sunrise.
  • April 4-5: Saturn and Mars are separated by about 0.5° (the apparent width of a full Moon), with dazzling Venus just to their left and Jupiter farther off to the lower-left
  • April 16: Jupiter, Venus, Mars, and Saturn form an evenly-spaced line measuring about 31 degrees long.
  • April 23-27: the waning crescent Moon approaches the planets, joining the party and sweeping below the line.
  • April 30, Jupiter and Venus are a fifth of a degree apart (less than half the apparent diameter of a full Moon).
  • May 29: Jupiter and Mars coming to half a degree of one another on the morning of May 29. As the planets continue spreading apart, Venus, Jupiter, and Mars spacing out evenly and Saturn lagging farther out, forming a longer line 45 degrees in length.
  • June 15-24: The planetary parade culminates with a chance for observers to see all five naked-eye planets and the Moon at the same time, as they form a beautiful line across the sky that gradually tightens into an evenly-spaced procession across the southeast on the morning of the 24th (not only that, but from June 23-25, they're even arranged in order of their average distance from the Sun)—thank you, Universe!
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Does the Moon turn pink in April?

Photo illustration of Moon with pink flowers superimposed on top

The full Moon on April 16 bears a name given to it by the Algonquin tribe of Native Americans: the Pink Moon. Normally, the fully illuminated full Moon looks a brilliant white, although when it's rising and very low on the horizon, atmospheric refraction makes it look golden. During total lunar eclipses (such as on May 15), it can seem to turn various shades of red as it passes through Earth's shadow. So does it turn a pink color for some reason in April, as the nickname suggests? Well…no—in this usage, "pink" refers not to the color but rather to the frilled (pinked) edges of flowers of the genus Dianthus, commonly known as moss pink, creeping phlox, moss phlox, or mountain phlox. These are among the first flowers to blossom in the springtime, so the Algonquin gave the name to the full Moon of this time, reflecting how traditional names for the full Moon often correspond to seasonal events.

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April showers

Meteor streaking across night sky

From April 15-29, Earth passes through the trail of dust left behind by Comet Thatcher, which was discovered in 1861 and circles the Sun every 415 years. As we slam into the tiny particles, they enter the atmosphere at 30 miles (49 kilometers) per second—far faster than a speeding bullet. Their collisions with air molecules generate a tremendous amount of heat that incinerates them in a flash of light called a meteor (or to some a "shooting star"). This typically happens about 50-75 miles above the ground.

Appearing to radiate from the vicinity of the constellation Lyra the Harp, this display was named the Lyrid meteor shower. However, the Lyrids were already known in ancient times (although not by that name): Chinese accounts of it date back to 687 BC, making those the oldest-known records of any meteor shower. Peaking on the night of April 21-22, the Lyrids produce 10-15 meteors per hour, and this year, with the Moon at a bright, waning gibbous phase during the peak, it's best to try observing before moonrise, which occurs around 2 am local time. Observing tips can be found at /explore-science/how-to-observe-a-meteor-shower.

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Taking a bite out of the Sun

Partial solar eclipse

The Moon's shadow skims the bottom of our planet on April 30, causing a partial solar eclipse as it moves partly between Earth and the Sun, blocking 63 percent of our star's diameter from view so that at mid-eclipse the Sun looks like a crescent (or a cookie that some cosmic "Cookie Monster" has chomped on). This maximum obscuration is observed only from well-positioned ships off Cape Horn and the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.

For skywatchers farther northward, less of the Sun is hidden from view, and the limit of the partial eclipse extends about halfway up South America. No part of the eclipse is visible from the US. Simulations and times for viewing from various other locations can be found at www.timeanddate.com/eclipse/solar/2022-april-30.

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Meteors of May

Meteor streaking across nigh sky

Do you know anyone who saw Halley's Comet during its last appearance in 1986? It wasn't a favorable apparition, and it was disappointingly faint, so not many people did. However, you can still see bits and pieces of it as Earth passes through its dust trail from April 19-May 28. This produces the annual Eta Aquarid meteor shower, during which 10-20 meteors per hour can be seen under ideal conditions at its peak on the night of May 5-6. However, the Eta Aquarids are typically a better sight for observers in the southern hemisphere because the shower's radiant—the point in the constellation Aquarius the Water-Carrier from which the meteors seem to emanate—is higher when observed from south of the equator, optimizing visibility.

This year's peak occurs when the Moon is seen as a waxing crescent phase that sets at about 1 am local time, leaving several hours for observing before the start of morning twilight. Notable: At 44 miles (66 kilometers) per second, Eta Aquarids are among the faster meteors seen. Also, this shower has a broad maximum, meaning that aside from the night of the peak, it might be worth trying to watch the night before and the night after. This is one of two displays caused by Halley's Comet, the other being the Orionids, which peak in October. As you prepare for the shower, don't forget to check our meteor-watching video ahead of time, mentioned above in the description of the Lyrid display.

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Red Moon rising

Total eclipse of the moon

The second of this year's four eclipses is a total eclipse of the Moon that occurs on the night of May 15 (and for the East Coast, into the wee hours of the 16th). The full Moon passes through Earth’s shadow and is gradually covered by our planet’s reddish, inner shadow. The entire event will be seen from the eastern United States and all of South America, but skywatchers on the West Coast will miss the beginning.

As seen from San Francisco, the eclipse is well underway when the Moon rises at 8:06 pm Pacific, with 70 percent of its diameter already immersed in Earth's shadow and 23 minutes until totality. That happens at 8:29 pm Pacific, when the Moon is only 4 degrees above the horizon. The Moon remains in the shadow for an hour and 24 minutes, then begins to exit Earth’s shadow at 9:53 pm Pacific. For observers in SF, the Moon is only 17 degrees high in the east at this time, and the partial eclipse ends at 10:55 pm Pacific. Here's a link to our informative video about lunar eclipses and how to observe them: www.calacademy.org/explore-science/how-to-observe-a-lunar-eclipse

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