April SkyTalk | Venus & The Pleiades

In last month’s installment, we highlighted a bright planet and a star cluster—Jupiter and the Beehive. This month we do it again—this time it’s Venus and the Pleiades. Both are so bright that they can be seen with the unaided eye anytime the sky is clear. And the view in binoculars when near each other is truly spectacular!

On the evenings of April 11th and 12th, the brightest planet in the sky passes close to the brightest star cluster. We’re talking about Venus (actually the third brightest of all celestial objects after the Sun and Moon) and the famed Pleiades. Looking toward the west after sunset in late twilight is radiant Venus. It clearly outshines Jupiter high in the south and all of the brightest stars seen including Sirius in the southwest, brightest of the entire heavenly host. (As dazzling as Venus appears, it will continue to gain in brightness over the coming months. At its maximum magnitude, it is capable of casting shadows on the ground—especially if snow-covered!)

On the dates mentioned, Venus will lie just 2 to 3 degrees to the east (left) of the Pleiades and easily fit in the field of view of typical binoculars. The sight of these two celestial showpieces so near each other in the sky should be absolutely stunning! As an added attraction, the V-shaped Hyades star cluster and its bright orange luminary Aldebaran will be seen further to the east of Venus and slightly higher in the sky. Thereafter, the planet will begin slowly pulling north of the two clusters, and a just week later—on the evening of April 18th—form an equilateral triangle with them.

Mentioned should be made here of a fascinating supposed connection between us and the Pleiades. According to many cultures (especially in the orient—one example being the Japanese car Subaru, which is named after them and whose emblem represents its stars), some of our early ancestors in the remote past came here from this glittering stellar jewel-box of blue-white diamonds! Although skeptical, I’ve had the experience of showing the Pleiades to people who had never viewed anything through a telescope before. Upon looking into the eyepiece, tears flowed as they uttered the words “That’s my home!” Now where did they ever get an idea like that?

Finally, a special note for readers living in the western part of the country. On the early morning of Saturday, April 4th, there will be a nominal total eclipse of the Moon beginning at 3:15 a.m. PDT. Totality itself will be very brief, starting at 4:56 and ending just 8 minutes later at 5:04 as our satellite skirts the edge of the Earth’s dark inner shadow. Depending on exactly where you live, you may be able to see the closing partial phase which ends at 6:45 in the brightening dawn as the Moon sets in the west.

— James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of nine books on stargazing. His latest, Celebrating the Universe!, is available from HayHouse.com.