By David Ward
The two brightest planets rule the night sky in March: Jupiter in the east and Venus in the west, with all the bright stars of winter in between. The two planets are getting closer together and will continue to do so all spring. In June they will pair up in the west at dusk, a beautiful event called a conjunction.
Gaze into the east for Jupiter. You can easily find it because of its bright yellowish light, and it does not twinkle like the stars. Just below Jupiter look for a backwards question mark outlined in stars. You have found Leo, the Lion, one of the constellations of the Zodiac through which all the planets travel at one time or another.
For the ancient Greeks, Leo was the Nemean Lion who fell to Earth from the moon as a meteor. Killing this beast was the first of 12 “labors” which the great hero Heracles (we know him better by his Roman name Hercules) had to perform. The lion’s skin was impervious to arrows and swords, and Heracles had to strangle the lion with his bare hands. He skinned the animal with one of its own claws and wore the hide as a cloak of armor.
To the right of Leo is a single sort-of-bright star, Alphard, meaning the lonely, the heart of Hydra, the many-headed serpent. Hydra was another creature that Heracles had to tangle with, and it had the annoying habit of growing back two heads for every one cut off. The hero got around that difficulty by cauterizing the stump of each decapitated head with a firebrand before it had a chance to grow more.
Just above Jupiter is a blank section of sky, but if you peer into it closely you may spot a faint fuzzy spot. Binoculars will turn that fuzzy spot into dozens of glittering stars. These days this cluster of stars is known as the Beehive, which it certainly resembles. Ancient people called it Praesepe, an old Latin word meaning a manger.
Feeding at this manger are two donkeys, Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australis. The gods Dionysus and Silenus rode these donkeys into battle during the epic struggle between the Olympians and the Titans. The braying of the donkeys frightened the Titans and the Olympians won the battle. To honor the donkeys they were placed in the sky at the manger so they would always have hay to eat. The two donkeys are not very bright in the sky — in fact you can barely see them. Look closely and there they are, one on each side of the Beehive.
The donkeys and their manger are right in the middle of a very dim constellation known as Cancer, the Crab, also part of the Zodiac. Cancer was the crab that Hera, queen of the gods, sent to distract Heracles when he was trying to kill that many-headed serpent. Hera hated the hero’s guts because he was the illegitimate son of her husband, Zeus. Heracles dispatched the crab by stomping on it with his foot and Cancer too was placed in the sky for its effort.
Want to see the plane of our solar system where all the planets move, outlined against the evening sky? Look towards the west about an hour or so after sunset for a faint pillar of light extending above the horizon and slanting to the left. If you are in Seattle, do not even bother, the city lights will drown it out. Only in a dark sky location like the Methow Valley will you be able to see this phenomenon, the Zodiacal Light, which most people have never even heard of. If you are wondering what in the world it is you are seeing, think about this: trillions of dust-sized meteoroids trapped by gravity in orbit around the sun. A great time to look for it will be the moonless evenings from March 8-23.
If you are up late, check out Saturn prominently displayed in the head of Scorpius the Scorpion, another constellation of the Zodiac, in the east.
On March 22, a slender crescent moon will be hanging delicately in the evening sky at dusk right next to Venus.
If you have ever wanted to see one of the distant outer planets, the night of March 4 will be a good time to look for Uranus just below Venus. You will need binoculars or a small telescope to tease it out of hiding.
On March 20, Earth reaches that point in its orbit known as the vernal equinox, halfway between the shortest days of winter and the longest days of summer.