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Mercury

Mercury is visible as an evening object for observers at northern and equatorial latitudes during April (apart from the few days at the start and end of the month). For this apparition the planet can be seen low down above the west-northwestern horizon just after sunset. The peak altitude occurs on April 18th when greatest elongation east (GEE) is reached. On this day, from London for example, the planet will be visible as a mag. -0.1 point of light 10 degrees above the horizon, 45 minutes after sunset. Observers should also note that Mercury is at its brightest at the start of the month and before GEE occurs. It decreases from mag. -1.4 to +2.1 during the visibility period.

On April 8th the thin waxing crescent Moon passes 5 degrees south of Mercury, aiding in locating the planet.

Thin crescent Moon and Mercury just after sunset from mid-northern temperate latitudes on April 8, 2016 (credit - stellarium)

The chart below shows positions of Mercury during April from latitude 52N (e.g. London, England). The view will be similar from other northern temperate locations with the added bonus this is the most favourable evening apparition of the year from such regions. From mid-southern latitudes, Mercury is not suitably placed for observation this month.

April evening apparition of Mercury as seen from mid-northern temperate latitudes, 45 minutes after sunset (credit:- freestarcharts)

Venus

Venus, mag. -3.8, is now too close to the Sun to be seen from mid-northern temperature latitudes although from equatorial and southern latitudes it can be spotted throughout April low down above the eastern horizon just before sunrise. However, the planet is now fast closing in towards the Sun and during May will be finally lost to the bright twilight from all remaining locations Worldwide.

An interesting occultation occurs on April 6th when the thin 2% illuminated waning crescent Moon passes 0.7 degrees north of Venus. Since the event occurs during daytime we don't recommend viewing it as the Sun is dangerously close by.

Mars

Mars is now a bright conspicuous object that starts the month in Scorpius before moving into neighbouring Ophiuchus (April 3rd). With a southerly declination of 21 degrees the famous "Red planet" is rather more favorably seen from southern locations where at the beginning of the month it rises during late evening, improving to early evening by months end. From mid-northern latitudes the planet is visible almost three hours later than that. On April 17th, Mars reaches its first stationary point after which retrograde motion commences.

Mars as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope on August 26, 2003 (credit:- NASA/ESA)

To the naked eye Mars appears a deep red-orange in colour. Since there are only a few weeks to go until opposition it's now brightening nicely, increasing from mag. -0.5 to -1.4 as the month progresses. The surrounding region of sky also contains first magnitude red supergiant star Antares (α Sco - mag. +1.0) located 6 degrees southeast of Mars and Saturn (mag. +0.3) about 10 degrees east of the planet. Of the three objects Mars is easily the brightest followed by Saturn and then Antares.

Mars and Saturn during April 2016 (credit:- freestarcharts)

Mars and Saturn during April 2016 - pdf format (credit:- freestarcharts)

When viewed through a telescope Mars appears small - its apparent size increases from 12 to 16 arc seconds this month - but under good seeing conditions it's possible to spot major surface features such as the North Pole cap, Syrtis Major and other dusty markings. A good tip is to push up the magnification as high as possible to tease out subtle details.

On April 25th the waning gibbous Moon passes 5 degrees north of Mars.

Moon, Mars and Saturn as seen early morning from New York City on April 25, 2016 (credit:- stellarium)

Jupiter

Jupiter is now just a month past opposition and continues to be a stunning object moving retrograde among the stars of Leo. The giant planet is visible towards the east as soon as it's dark enough and remains so until the early hours of the morning. Jupiter starts April at magnitude -2.4 with an apparent diameter 44 arc seconds. By months end it has faded slightly to mag. -2.3 and shrunk to 41 arc seconds in diameter.

When viewed through a telescope a wealth of planetary details are visible including cloud bands, twists, knots and storms with the most famous of all being "The Great Red Spot". Also easily visible but not always at the same time are the four bright Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

A lovely pairing occurs on the night of April 17th/18th when the waxing gibbous Moon passes just a couple of degrees south of Jupiter.

Moon and Jupiter 45 minutes after sunset from London, England on April 17, 2016 (credit:- stellarium)

Jupiter during April 2016 (credit:- freestarcharts)

Jupiter during April 2016 - pdf format (credit:- freestarcharts)

Saturn

Saturn is positioned about 10 degrees east of Mars as it continues to move slowly retrograde in Ophiuchus. The beautiful "Ringed planet" rises an hour or so after Mars and by months end can be seen before midnight from northern temperate latitudes and up to three hours earlier for those living further south.

At the beginning of April a good opportunity exists to spot bizarre moon Iapetus. This world is famous for its "two-tone" colouration with one side much darker in colour than the other. As a result when Iapetus is positioned on the western side of Saturn (as viewed from Earth) it appears brighter than when positioned on the opposite side. On April 5th, Iapetus reaches greatest western elongation and at mag. +10.1 can be seen with a small scope of 80mm (3.1-inch) aperture.

The Solar System's second largest planet increases slightly in brightness from magnitude +0.4 to +0.2 with its apparent diameter improving from 17.4 to 18.1 arc seconds as the month progresses. On April 25th, the waning gibbous Moon passes 3 degrees north of Saturn.

Mosaic of Iapetus images taken by the Cassini spacecraft on Dec 31, 2004 (NASA/Cassini_Probe/Matt McIrvin)

Uranus

Uranus reaches solar conjunction on April 9th and therefore is positioned too close to the Sun to be safely observed this month.

Neptune

Neptune, mag. +8.0, reached solar conjunction at the end of February but from northern temperate latitudes remains unsuitably placed for observation during April. However it can be seen before sunrise towards the east from equatorial and southern regions. By months end the planet rises up to four hours before the Sun from such locations.

The ice giant and most distant of the eight planets is currently located in the faint constellation of Aquarius. It's never bright enough to be seen with the naked eye but can be spotted with binoculars when the sky is dark enough.

On April 5th the thin waning crescent Moon passes 2 degrees north of Neptune.

Neptune during April 2016 (credit:- freestarcharts)

Neptune during April 2016 - pdf format (credit:- freestarcharts)

Solar System Data Table April 2016

 DateRight AscensionDeclinationApparent MagnitudeApparent SizeIllum. (%)Distance from Earth (AU)Constellation
Sun5th Apr 201600h 56m 47.8s06d 04m 10.4s-26.732.0'1001.000Pisces
Sun15th Apr 201601h 33m 33.1s09d 45m 49.0s-26.731.9'1001.003Pisces
Sun25th Apr 201602h 10m 52.0s13d 11m 12.3s-26.731.8'1001.006Aries
Mercury5th Apr 201601h 42m 40.6s11d 26m 25.6s-1.305.6"851.194Pisces
Mercury15th Apr 201602h 44m 52.0s18d 28m 55.9s-0.407.0"510.955Aries
Mercury25th Apr 201603h 18m 16.7s21d 09m 25.1s1.309.3"200.724Aries
Venus5th Apr 201623h 58m 22.8s-01d 47m 59.5s-3.810.2"961.628Pisces
Venus15th Apr 201600h 43m 43.5s03d 05m 22.7s-3.810.1"971.658Pisces
Venus25th Apr 201601h 29m 21.8s07d 53m 18.2s-3.909.9"981.684Pisces
Mars5th Apr 201616h 24m 28.6s-20d 49m 30.1s-0.712.4"930.757Ophiuchus
Mars15th Apr 201616h 27m 57.8s-21d 14m 09.0s-1.013.8"950.681Ophiuchus
Mars25th Apr 201616h 26m 24.6s-21d 32m 10.2s-1.315.2"970.615Ophiuchus
Jupiter5th Apr 201611h 06m 14.6s07d 20m 14.4s-2.443.4"1004.548Leo
Jupiter15th Apr 201611h 03m 01.6s07d 38m 51.7s-2.442.5"1004.640Leo
Jupiter25th Apr 201611h 00m 48.2s07d 50m 52.0s-2.341.5"994.754Leo
Saturn5th Apr 201617h 00m 20.2s-20d 56m 50.4s0.417.5"1009.494Ophiuchus
Saturn15th Apr 201616h 59m 15.7s-20d 54m 19.2s0.417.8"1009.357Ophiuchus
Saturn25th Apr 201616h 57m 33.6s-20d 51m 01.2s0.318.0"1009.238Ophiuchus
Uranus5th Apr 201601h 14m 35.0s07d 15m 04.2s5.903.4"10020.964Pisces
Uranus15th Apr 201601h 16m 43.1s07d 28m 01.6s5.903.4"10020.965Pisces
Uranus25th Apr 201601h 18m 50.0s07d 40m 45.6s5.903.4"10020.940Pisces
Neptune5th Apr 201622h 49m 31.2s-08d 20m 33.3s8.002.2"10030.773Aquarius
Neptune15th Apr 201622h 50m 40.8s-08d 13m 46.6s8.002.2"10030.666Aquarius
Neptune25th Apr 201622h 51m 42.3s-08d 07m 50.7s7.902.2"10030.540Aquarius