Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears monthly in the Steamboat Today.
Find more columns by Westlake here.
Imagine the two brightest objects in the night sky, the moon and Venus, being so close together that you could cover them both with the tip of your pinky finger at arm's length. Then, picture a bright meteor streaking by while you are enjoying the moon-Venus show. Finally, imagine aiming your binoculars at the famous Double Star Cluster in Perseus only to see the glow of a green comet nearby. Hey, you're not dreaming. This celestial triple-header will become a reality in the pre-dawn sky Wednesday.
The annual Lyrid meteor shower peaks every year on the morning of April 22 as the Earth sweeps through the dusty wake of Comet Thatcher. A patient observer can expect to see 10 to 20 bright Lyrid meteors streak across the sky each hour that morning before dawn, but stay alert, because the Lyrids have on occasion produced unexpected bursts of activity many times that rate. The meteors will seem to fan out from a point near the bright star Vega, high in the Northeast sky before dawn.
Comet Yi-SWAN is a recently discovered comet visiting the inner solar system for the first time, we think. It will not become visible to the unaided eye, but it will be an easy object to see through binoculars or a small telescope as it passes through the constellations of Cassiopeia and Perseus this month.
On the magic morning of April 22, Comet Yi-SWAN will appear in the same binocular field as the well-known Double Star Cluster in Perseus. The cluster itself is easily visible to the unaided eye, just below the familiar "W" shaped pattern of Cassiopeia in the Northeast sky.
But, the main event Wednesday morning is the rare close conjunction and occultation of the dazzling planet Venus by the slender waxing crescent moon. When the pair breaks the eastern horizon about 4:50 a.m. MT, it will resemble a celestial diamond ring with Venus just off of the moon's bright cusp. Keep watching, though, because as the sky brightens with the rising sun, the moon actually will occult, or eclipse, Venus starting about 6:20 a.m. With binoculars, you should be able to spot Venus as it reappears during daylight from behind the moon's dark edge at about 7:16 a.m. Strong binoculars or a small telescope also should show the crescent phase of the planet Venus as the moon gobbles it up. Just be sure that you have a clear, unobstructed view of the eastern sky to watch the occultation.
On Monday, the weather forecast for Wednesday morning looked great. If the sky is clear, you won't regret rising a little early to catch this celestial triple-header.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published around the world. His "Celestial News" column appears weekly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. His "Cosmic Moment" radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Also, check out Jimmy's Web site at www.jwestlake.com.