By David Ward
As soon as it gets dark on an early March evening, go outside and look up into the south. There you will find the great hunter Orion standing proud and upright in the evening sky. He is easily recognized by his belt — three stars in a row and two bright stars, one above and one below the belt. All his pals are there with him including his hunting dog, the very bright star Sirius, his would-be girl friends, the Pleiades star cluster, and Taurus the bull. High up overhead, the Gemini twins are also almost standing right side up.
Enjoy these beautiful stars and constellations of winter while you can because they will not be around much longer. In April, because of the earth’s motion around the sun, Orion will ride off into the sunset and will not return to our evening skies until next winter.
New stars are taking their places and will be with us for the spring and at least part of the summer. Leo the Lion is clawing his way up above the horizon in the east. He is easily recognized by a large backward question mark and a triangle below. The period below the question mark is the star Regulus. Look to the lower right of Regulus for Alphard, the heart of Hydra, the Water Serpent. Its strange name translates from Arabic as the “Lonely One” because it shines by itself in an area of no other bright stars.
In the northeast, the Big Dipper, a sure sign of spring, is making its annual appearance. See if you can spot the faint companion star right next to Mizar, the middle star in the handle of the dipper. If you can you probably do not need to get your eyeglass prescription changed.
March is a great time of year to catch a glimpse of the elusive and seldom-seen zodiacal light. At the stargazing programs I have put on this winter in Death Valley National Park in southern California, we have been seeing this phenomenon almost every night. No one has ever seen it before or even heard of it. Maybe you have not either.
To see it you need to be in a very dark place like the Methow Valley, away from distracting lights. If you live in or anywhere near Seattle, forget it, you will never see it from there. Pick a night with no moon and look into the west where the sun went down, just after it gets completely dark. It will look like a softly glowing pyramid of light tilting slightly to the left and extending high into the sky. Early in the evening is best because later it will fade and disappear. Are you wondering what it might be? That glow is caused by tiny dust particles lit up by the sun and trapped by gravity in the inner part of our solar system.
So long, Venus
March is the month we will say goodbye to Venus, the beautiful brilliant planet that has been gracing our evening skies all winter. In early March she still stands high in the western sky just after sunset, but her orbit will cause her to rapidly dive into the west. By mid-month the planet will lie very low in the western sky and be hard to see. If you have a telescope, be sure to check out Venus now. It will look like a tiny crescent moon as it comes between us and the sun. In April, Venus will reappear in the eastern sky just before dawn, shining just as bright as it did in the west in the evening.
Apparently the very ancient Greeks did not realize that the Venus that appeared in the evening and the morning skies were one and the same. They called the morning version Phosphorus and the evening one Hesperus. At some point they figured it out themselves or learned it from the Babylonians.
A dim and uninteresting-looking Mars will remain in the evening sky after the departure of Venus. Look for the red planet in the southwest after it gets dark throughout March.
Mercury will make an evening appearance in the west at the end of the month. Look for the seldom-seen innermost planet low in the western twilight not long after sunset. Binoculars might help with this one.
Jupiter, the second-brightest planet after Venus, will put on a show that lasts almost all spring and summer. In early March it clears the eastern horizon around 9 p.m. and by month’s end quite a bit earlier. If you see something in the east that is bright and not twinkling, it is probably Jupiter.
Saturn, the ringed world, is on view for early risers. It can be seen in the southeast just before dawn.
The Earth reaches that point in its orbit known as the vernal equinox on March 20. At that time, the days and nights are of equal length and we are halfway back to the luxurious long days of summer.