Last Call for True Winter Star Watching
We have the best of all worlds looking out from our world this month. March stargazing is fantastic because you still have Orion and all the great constellations of winter, the best of the year in my opinion, but you're not going to freeze off any body parts. One thing I don't like is that next Sunday savings time begins and stargazing can get really get started until 8pm. I love being able to stargaze right after supper!
The grand winter constellation Orion the hunter and his gang of other bright stars and planets continue to light up the southern heavens. There's Taurus the bull; Auriga the chariot driver turned goat farmer; the big and little dogs Canis Major and Minor; Gemini the Twins; and of course, Orion the hunter with his three perfectly aligned belt stars. In addition to all those bright shiners is the brightest shiner of them all, the planet Jupiter. The largest planet in our local family of planets starts out these March evenings nearly due south in the middle of the constellation Gemini the Twins.
Jupiter and Earth were at the closest point each other around the start of this year when they were a little over 390 million miles apart. Since then Jupiter and our planetary home have drifted apart in their orbits around the sun are now almost 55 million miles farther apart. Because of that Jupiter's not quite as bright now as it was and will be a little smaller in the eyepiece of your telescope. It's still a great telescope target, even for smaller scopes as you can see the disk of the planet and its four brightest moons. You might even see a few of Jupiter's horizontal cloud bands. Just make sure you leave set out your telescope and all the eyepieces you'll be using outside for at least a half hour before hand so the optics in the scope can adapt to the cooler outside air.
By the way the Orion Nebula is also another great vista for your telescope. You're witnessing an excited birth cloud of hydrogen gas with storms forming within it over 1500 light years away with just one light year equaling nearly six trillion miles! With even a small scope you can four stars arranged in a trapezoid pattern near the center of cloud that were born out of the Orion Nebula. One the stars may be as young as 50,000 years old which believe or not would make it a stellar infant!
In the north sky, the Big Dipper is standing up on its handle. The fainter Little Dipper is off to the left hanging by its handle. The brightest star, Polaris, otherwise known as the North Star, shines at the end of the Little Dipper's handle. Polaris is the "Lynch Pin" of the sky. All of the stars in our sky appear to circle around the North Star every 24 hours since it shines directly above the Earth's North Pole.
Over in the northwest sky, look for the bright sideways "W" that is supposed to be the outline of Queen Cassiopeia tied up in her throne. The story goes that Hera, queen of the Greek gods, was angry with Cassiopeia for boasting that she was more beautiful than the queen herself. Hera tied her up in a throne and cast her up into the heavens, where to this day she continues her endless circle around Polaris.
In the east look for a distinctive backward question mark that outlines the chest and head of Leo the Lion, one of the springtime constellations. Regulus is the moderately bright star at the bottom of the question mark that sits at Leo's heart. As March continues Leo will get higher and higher in the sky in the early evening as the stars of Orion and his gang sinks lower and lower in the west. This is because Earth, in its orbit around the sun, is starting to turn toward spring constellations like Leo and away from the wonderful stars of winter. Enjoy them now while they're still at the celestial center stage.