Orion's Gang Are Still High and Bright!
March is the last full month to enjoy the full complement of winter constellations. Orion the Hunter is still the main attraction in the night sky. As darkness sets in later in the evening, the constellation is about halfway up in the southwestern sky, looking very much like a giant hourglass. Orion is one of the few constellations that doesn’t make you stretch your imagination too far out of shape. It does kind of look like a hunter, or at least a bulked up man. Everybody and their brother has seen the three bright stars in a row that make up Orion’s belt, but the biggest shiners are the stars Rigel and Betelgeuse, at Orion’s knee and armpit respectively.
Orion has lots of celestial friends with him in the southern heavens, a cast that includes Taurus the Bull located to the upper right of Orion. It looks like a little arrow, with the moderately bright star Aldebaran as the angry eye of the bull. A great telescope or binocular target in Taurus is the Pleiades star cluster that looks like a mini Big Dipper, made up of hundreds of stars around 100 million years old and about 410 light years away. It’s one of the best things you can see in the winter sky.
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 sink 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.
Just off the tail of Leo is the brightest star-like object in the evening sky. It's the planet Jupiter. I don't care how much light pollution you have you can't miss Jupiter rising in the low eastern sky. Jupiter is always a bright light in our night sky, but it's extra bright this month because Jupiter and our Earth are at their closest approach to each other, something astronomers call opposition. Jupiter is still over 409 million miles away but since it's such a huge planet, 88,000 miles in diameter, eleven times that of Earth, it puts on quite a show on the celestial stage.
Even with a small telescope you can resolve the disk of the giant planet and maybe see some of its cloud bands orientated diagonally across the planet. For sure you'll see up to four tiny stars that line up in different arrangements every night on either side of Jupiter. These are the giant planets largest moons, often referred to as the Galilean moons as they were extensively observed and tracked by the one and only Galileo. It's best to wait until about 9pm to view Jupiter through your telescope. Let it get high enough above the eastern horizon and the blurring effects of Earth's thicker layer of atmosphere near the horizon. A fuzzy Jupiter isn't that much fun to look at! I have much more on Jupiter later this month in Skywatch.
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.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and is author of the book, “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications. Available at bookstores and online at www.adventurepublications.net.
If you have any astronomical questions or want me to write about something you’re seeing in the night sky drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org