April in Toronto: Astronomical Easter Egg hunts and Stargazing

TORONTO, ON, CANADA — York University Allan I. Carswell Observatory

Toronto, Ontario 11pm Friday April 10, 2020: image credit E.A. Hyde

Toronto’s Easter eggs in the sky: When thinking of searching for hidden things, most astronomers will quickly point to their favourite items up in the sky. Some of them have been true ‘Easter Eggs’, surprising and inspiring us all. Others we can still see up in the sky for the next week or so!

The Eggs on Mars, as pictured by the Opportunity rover in 2004. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/USGS

One of my all time favourite astronomical Easter eggs was the ‘Eggs’ discovered on Mars by the Opportunity rover near Fram crater in 2004. Sometimes called blueberries, they resemble closely the coloured eggs of Easter fame and provided evidence of a watery history for our red neighbour planet. While these eggs are unlikely to hatch, a lively discussion about water on Mars soon emerged. For some images of these spherical surprises see: https://mars.nasa.gov/resources/6944/martian-blueberries/

Illustration Credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI). Vesta Image Credit: NASA, ESA, J.-Y. Li (University of Maryland, College Park), and L. McFadden (NASA/GSFC). Moon Image Credit: T. Rector, I. Dell’Antonio/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Another great astronomical Easter egg can be found in the form of Vesta, the second largest object in the asteroid belt. Vesta was discovered in 1807, but at that time, they did not yet realise that it was roughly the shape of a slightly melted chocolate egg. Narrowly missing out on being qualified as a dwarf planet, unlike most asteroids, the interior of Vesta is differentiated (it has a rocky mantle with an iron/nickel core). Observations since have shown it to have had two ‘bites’ taken out of it by some other hungry solar system inhabitants (likely other asteroids). These two large bites, or ‘craters’ as we sometimes call them are both over 400 km or 249 miles wide. This object is so large that if it were at the distance of our Moon (as shown above) it would be easily visible to all of us here on Earth.

An artist rendition of Haumea is shown animated here, Haumea is thought to rotate in just under 4 hours. This rapid rotation causes it to be elongated. Artwork credit: Stephanie Hoover

Of course no astronomy Egg hunt would be complete without Haumea, a surprisingly shaped dwarf planet all the way past Neptune’s orbit. The farthest out in this list, Haumea has an egg-ceptionally large spin, which gives it a very nice oblong-shaped appearance with a red dyed top. It likely had some kind of collision in its past to have such a high spin and strange shape, but as it is almost a third of the mass of Pluto and very bright it can be seen with medium-sized and large telescopes. So far most images have been very poor resolution, but fortunately some very good artists’ renditions are available (as shown).

The direction of Venus and the Pleides this coming week from Sky and Telescope (https://skyandtelescope.org/observing/this-weeks-sky-at-a-glance-april-10-18-2/). Credit: Sky and Telescope

Finally, looking up into our own Toronto skies this next week, the astronomy hunt can continue in good form. If you are a night owl, the still very full super Moon rises at about 11pm, making for lovely viewing in the East. If you don’t want to stay up late you can catch the constellation Orion just after sunset (after 8pm). In particular if you examine the constellation Orion you will still be able to see the red star Betelgeuse, back to almost its regular light level, after exciting astronomers the last few months by dimming substantially. The planet Venus is also a great find this week, shining brightly in the west during and after twilight. If you are looking towards Venus you may also be able to spot the bright blue open cluster of the Pleiades and the constellation of Taurus with its bright red ‘eye’ (the star Aldebaran)!

Whether you are interested in searching the night sky or the telescope archives, this coming week holds a great deal to egg-cite the imagination of us all. Anyone interested to join in on these topics and more from the comfort of their own home can visit our online public viewing chatroom every Monday evening at 9pm from York University’s Allan I. Carswell Observatory (in conjunction with our York Universe radio broadcast at astronomy.fm). The observatory chatroom will continue to be available every Monday night, even with the university closures. The next York Universe broadcast will be April 20, 2020 from 9–10pm Toronto time!

Astrophysicist by training, Data Scientist by trade. Assistant Professor at York University, Toronto ON, Google Cloud Certified Instructor-Twitter @astrohyde