Star Watching is Losing its Chill but not its Thrill!
It's the best of all worlds, looking out of our world this month. March stargazing is fantastic because you still have Orion and all of the great constellations of winter, but on most nights the chill of winter has eased a bit. In fact spring begins, at least astronomically, at 5:45pm (CDT) on March 20th.
Venus and Mars are still putting on a show in the very early low western sky for about one to two hours after sunset. By far Venus is the brighter of the two. In fact they pop out before the end of evening twilight. These two planets were really in a tight celestial hug last month but are still fairly close together the first couple of weeks of this month. From night to night though the gap between the two planets will widen.
There's actually a third planet in that fray. It's Uranus, one of the most distant major planets in our solar system, nearly 1.9 billion miles away. There's no way you'll see it with the naked eye but with a small to moderate telescope it should appear as tiny blue-greenish "star". This coming Wednesday evening, March 3rd Uranus will be the next brightest star-like object you'll see with your scope to the upper left of Venus, less than one degree away. On Thursday and Friday it'll be the next brightest object just to the lower right of Venus.
Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, 88,000 miles in diameter and little over 400 million miles away this month, starts out the evening in the eastern sky and is by far the brightest star-like object in that part of the heavens and spends most of the rest of the night forging westward across the celestial dome. Even with even a small telescope you can check out its four brighter moons and even some of its cloud bands. This time of year especially I want to remind you to make sure your telescope and all of the eyepieces sit outside and cool off for at least half an hour before you use them. It can make all the difference in how clearly you see things. Also, the longer you look through the eyepiece the more detail you'll see.
Unfortunately this week the planets will be the only distant celestial targets you can check out because we'll have a more or less full moon most of this week white washing the night sky. Thursday's the date when the moon will actually be full.
Starting this weekend though you can really dig into the grand winter constellations like Orion the Hunter and his gang. What I call "Orion and his gang" include the constellations 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 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 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 even more beautiful than Hera. The queen of the gods of Mount Olympus tied her up in a throne and cast her up into the heavens, where to this day and night she continues her endless circle around Polaris.
In the eastern sky right next to Jupiter look for a distinctive backward question mark that outlines the chest and head of Leo the Lion, the first 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.