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Night Sky News: April Auroras and Meteor Showers

Forget looking on the ground for colored eggs this holiday weekend, because the treats are all up in the night sky.

April is generally thought of as being pretty quiet when it comes to the number of bright stars in the sky. But this weekend makes up for it with lots of celestial sights up for grabs.

For one, April continues to be a banner month for auroras in the higher latitudes of Canada and Northern Europe. Some displays have even spilled down to U.S. states such as Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The next couple of nights may have more auroras in store: Sun-watching satellites noticed earlier this week that a solar wind stream may soon strike a glancing blow to Earth’s magnetic field. It’s charged particles in the solar wind striking our atmosphere that create auroras.

The stream’s estimated time of arrival is somewhere between Thursday, April 21, and Saturday, April 23, with forecasts of around a 30 percent chance of seeing ghostly glows in higher latitudes.

If you have clear skies and you live north of 40 degrees latitude, it might be worth a peek outside the next few late nights.

The best time to look is around midnight toward your local north horizon. Watch for hints of a greenish glow to creep up the sky from the horizon—that’s how many aurora events begin.

I live in Montreal, Canada (45 degrees latitude), and on average I see about two aurora displays every spring season. I had the good fortune to see a faint display just two weeks ago from my suburban backyard.

All this activity is no surprise to solar researchers, who noticed that the last few months have seen a serious upswing in activity on the surface of the sun, from increased sunspot sizes and numbers to big eruptions of solar flares.

It turns out these colorful sky shows aren’t just pretty to look at—they might have a practical application for planet hunters, too. Astronomers announced this week that they hope to start looking for radio signals from auroras outside of our solar system to identify exoplanets.

Adding to the weekend show will be a minor but pretty annual meteor shower called the Lyrids. You can consider it the poorer cousin of the more famous August Perseids, because the hourly fall rates are much more modest.

But the “April shower” is known to offer up a surprise or two some years. Get your Lyrids viewers guide here.

The exciting part of both these natural events is that they are so unpredictable.

Still, if you crave instant sky-watching gratification, then you should have no trouble spotting the International Space Station in the coming nights.

For the next week or so, the orbiting lab will be making superbright flybys in the overhead skies of North America and Europe. It will appear as the brightest starlike object in the sky—only the moon will be brighter.

Since the ISS takes just two to four minutes to glide across the sky, the trick is knowing when and where to look. Spaceweather.com and Heavens-above.com offer some handy time tables.

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.