March star watching…thrilling but not as chilling

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 Marshall nights the chill of winter has eased a bit. In fact spring begins, at least astronomically, at 11:15 a.m. CDT on March 20.

Venus is making its bright presence known in the western sky this month. It’s setting right after the sun in the west at the start of the month, but it sets a little later each evening as the month goes on. By the end of the month it’ll set about 90 minutes after sunset. During the first half of the month Venus will be joined by Mercury in the low western sky, with the closest planet to the sun hanging just above and a little to the right. Venus is by far the brighter of the two, popping out before the end of evening twilight. Neither one of these planets are much fun to look at through a telescope, as Mercury is such a tiny planet and Venus is completely cloud covered. The blurring effects of the Earth’s atmosphere also make them appear super fuzzy through a scope.

Once evening darkness sets in you can really visually dig into the grand winter constellations. 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 “linchpin” 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 early evening eastern sky 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.

If you want to see three planets close together in the same part of the sky, get up about an hour and a half before sunrise and get out under the pre-twilight sky. Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter will be lined up, in that order, from left to right in the low southern skies. All three are easily visible with the naked eye with Jupiter being the brightest of the trio.

Mars is between Jupiter and Saturn and is the faintest of the three. It isn’t all that impressive now, although you can easily see the red hue. This summer, however, Mars will be a lot brighter in the summer evening sky, as it will be as close to Earth as it’s been since 2003 and almost as close as it’s been in nearly 60,000 years!

As an added attraction this week the waning full moon will be passing by the morning planets this week. On Wednesday morning, the moon will just to the upper left of Jupiter and this Friday, our lunar companion will be parked to upper right of Mars.

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is also the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and at  adventurepublications.net.

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