By Mike Lynch
This is your absolute last chance to see what’s left of the brilliant winter constellations in the Northwest sky.
They’re just about crashed in the low western sky, not to be seen again in the evening until late in the autumn when they emerge above the eastern horizon.
Since about Christmas the bright constellation Orion and his surrounding posse of shining stars have been lighting up the evening skies, but they’re getting the hook. As the Earth continues its journey around the sun, we’re turning away from the direction of space occupied by Orion pointing toward the noticeably less-brilliant spring constellations.
After the late sunset, you can still barely see the three bright stars in a row that outline the Orion’s belt hovering above the horizon. Above the belt is the bright star Betelgeuse, in the armpit of Orion.
The extremely bright planet Venus, a nextdoor neighbor to Earth is also on its way out. As bright as it is, Venus is not all that great a telescope target because it has a permanent global cloud cover. It’s worth a peek with your scope or even a good pair of binoculars because Venus goes through phases and changes shape. This month it’s taken on a crescent look.
Venus is also nearing its closest approach to the Earth for 2012. At the start of May it’s less than 40 million miles away. Venus will also have a tight celestial hugging with the moderately bright star Elnath, one of the members of the winter constellation Auriga the Chariot Driver.
From about May 5 through the 9, it will pass within 1 degree of Elnath, which is about the width of one of your fingers held at arm’s length.
Mars is also available in the western sky, although much higher up in the prime constellation Leo the Lion. The right side of Leo is a distinctive backward question mark of stars with Leo’s brightest star, Regulus, marking the period of the question mark.
Mike Lynch is an astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist and is author of the book, “Washington Starwatch.”