Springing ahead delays stargazing

  • Thu Feb 27th, 2014 10:26am
  • Life

By Mike Lynch

March stargazing is fantastic because you still have Orion and all the great constellations of winter, the best of the year in my opinion.

However daylight saving time begins March 9 so stargazing can’t really get started until 8 p.m.

The grand winter constellation Orion the hunter and his gang of other bright stars and planets continue to light up the southern heavens.

There’s 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 addition is the brightest shiner of them all, the planet Jupiter. The largest planet in our local family of planets starts out these March evenings nearly due south in the middle of the constellation Gemini the Twins.

Jupiter and Earth were at the closest point to each other around the start of this year when they were a little over 390 million miles apart.

Since then Jupiter and our planetary home have drifted apart in their orbits and are now almost 55 million miles farther apart.

Because of that Jupiter’s not quite as bright as it was and will be a little smaller in the eyepiece of your telescope. It’s still a great telescope target, even for smaller scopes as you can see the disk of the planet and its four brightest moons.

You might even see a few of Jupiter’s horizontal cloud bands.

The Orion Nebula is also another great vista for your telescope. You’re witnessing an excited birth cloud of hydrogen gas with storms forming within it more than 1,500 light-years away (one light-year equals nearly 6 trillion miles).

With even a small scope you can four stars arranged in a trapezoid pattern near the center of cloud that were born out of the Orion Nebula.

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 lynchpin of the sky as all of the stars in our sky appear to circle around it every 24 hours since it shines directly above the North Pole.

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.

In the east look for a distinctive backward question mark that outlines the chest and head of Leo the Lion, one 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 sinks lower and lower in the west.

This is because Earth, in its orbit around the sun, is starting to turn toward spring constellations like Leo and away from the wonderful stars of winter.

Mike Lynch is a broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and the author of “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations.” Email him at mikewlynch@comcast.net.

The Everett Astronomical Society website is: www.everettastro.org/.