Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Marching Towards Spring and Summer Stars

Submitted Photo | Leo Constellation.


Unless you are watching the weather up north, it’s hard to remember that we are in the midst of winter. One sure way to know the season is to gaze at the night sky; the constellations appear with a comforting regularity whether the temperature is 80-degrees or negative 10. And indeed, contrary to Punxsutawney Phil, the winter constellations of Orion, Canis Major (Orion’s dog), and Taurus are sinking towards the west to make room for Cancer, Leo, and Virgo. Since Cancer is so faint and barely visible, search out regal Leo in the east-southeast as it hunts down the last constellations of winter. Luckily, Leo is one of the constellations that actually looks like a lion! Its mane, also known as “The Sickle of Leo,” hosts bright Algieba. The handle end of the sickle is also Leo’s prancing front leg with Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, the “paw.” That handle/leg gives Leo the appearance of stepping forward, perfect for heralding in Spring. Look for Leo again on March 25 where the almost-full moon will be just above Regulus and nestled under Leo’s leg.

Mercury descends into morning twilight in March, but comes in close conjunction with Jupiter at dawn on March 5. On that day, Jupiter and Mercury will be separated by less than half a degree. Early risers with access to a telescope can catch them together about a half hour before sunrise; look towards the east-southeastern horizon. Venus, our Morning Star in winter, leaves the sky on March 26 to reappear April/May at dusk, just above the horizon. Watch as it gradually makes its way higher in the sky to become the Evening Star. Mars keeps company with Taurus for the month of March by moving eastward through it. Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus and known as the “Eye of Taurus,” comes close to Mars on March 19-21; both are similar in brightness and have that reddish-orange color. Jupiter and Saturn have been together at dawn in February, but the early morning glow made it difficult to view. It gets better in March with Jupiter, Mercury and Saturn appearing close together on March 9 and 10 with the lovely crescent Moon hanging with them all; look southeast and close to the horizon.

The Full Moon will appear on March 28. There are quite a few Full Moon names for March that originated with the various Native American tribes in North America: “Worm Moon,” “Crow Comes Back Moon,” “Eagle Moon,” and “Sugar Moon” to name a few. All refer to the seasonal changes that come with March. Tucked into those names are the Christian “Lenten Moon” and “Paschal Full Moon.” If the last full Moon of winter comes before the spring equinox (March 20) it is called the Lenten Moon; if it happens after the spring equinox it is called the Paschal Full Moon, meaning it is the first full moon of Spring. Lenten and Paschal Moon are famously (and confusingly) tied up with Easter.

March was a big month for astronomy on Earth as well! Christiaan Huygens discovered Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, in 1655. William Herschel discovered Uranus in 1782, and the Lowell Observatory announces the discovery of Pluto in 1930. Then there was the thrilling launch of Pioneer 4 on March 3, 1959. Pioneer 4’s main goal was to photograph the Moon during a flyby and while that didn’t happen, it did become the first American spacecraft to escape Earth’s gravity.



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