A sure sign of spring for stargazers is to spot the Big Dipper standing on its handle in the northeast. As March progresses, the dipper will climb higher in the northern sky as it circles the North Star. Line up the two end or highest stars in the dipper, Merak and Dubhe, and point to the left to locate Polaris, the star right in line with the poles of the Earth.
Later in the evening, follow the curve of the handle of the Big Dipper to the east to find the bright orange-colored star Arcturus. The name sounds a little bit like our word Arctic and there is a connection. The ancient Greek root word of both is Arktos, which means bear. Our word Arctic means realm of the bears, and Arcturus means guardian of the bears. The Greeks thought that star kept the two bears, which we now call the Big and Little Dippers, in their orbit around the North Star.
Be sure to check out all the bright stars of winter while they are still around. As the Earth cruises along in its orbit around the sun at over 66,000 miles per hour, we are getting a different view of the universe. We are trading in the winter view for the spring view. The beautiful Pleiades star cluster is now low in the west and will soon be difficult to see. Orion is “sloping slowly to the west,” a line penned by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his poem “Locksley Hall.” Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, will quickly follow Orion, riding off into the sunset glare.
The main thing happening up there is those two bright planets in the west just after sunset. If you have been watching them like I have, you might have noticed that they are getting closer together. Here is what is going on. The bright and lower one is Venus, named for the goddess of love and beauty, and the one above it is Jupiter, which gets its name from the king of the gods.
Back in late October, Venus rounded the far side of the sun, an event called Superior Conjunction. At that time it was invisible to us because it was too close to the blinding glare of the sun to be seen. Since then, the speedier Venus has been catching up with the Earth and moving higher in the western sky. Jupiter is more slowly dropping into the west.
Will they run into each other? Well, no, they are hundreds of millions of miles apart. The pair will pass very close to each other in our line of sight, which will happen on March 1. If you want to view this conjunction, as it is called, find a place where you can see low into the west and get there by just after sunset. Later than that and the pair will have set.
Look for the planet Mars, named for the god of war, high up in the sky nearly overhead. It is getting dimmer than it was a few months ago. The Earth is traveling quite a bit faster than Mars as we both circle the sun. We are leaving it farther and farther behind, which accounts for the dimming we notice.
If this does not make sense, think of it this way. The closer a planet is to the sun the shorter its orbit around it. Visualize a circular race track. If you are on the inside of the track, you do not have to run as far as someone on the outside of the track. Also, the closer a planet is to the sun the faster that planet moves. That is all about gravity. We move through space faster than Mars, but slower than Venus.
Have fun out there, and maybe the nights will be getting a little bit warmer soon.