Starwatching hits the doldrums

  • By Mike Lynch Special to The Herald
  • Friday, March 28, 2008 2:03pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

As the Earth continues its never-ending journey around the sun, our evening view of the heavens is turning away from the bright winter constellations and toward the less-than-awesome spring star patterns on the rise in the east.

The bright winter constellations are still hanging in there in the west, but this is their swan song. Next month most of them will be gone below the western horizon, and we won’t see them in the evening again until late fall.

To be honest with you, many amateur astronomers, including myself, agree that until summer constellations such as Cygnus and Scorpio make their appearances, we are officially in the spring doldrums of evening stargazing.

Even though we’re kind of in the stargazing doldrums, it’s still worth your time to make the stars your old friends. Without a doubt, the best thing to gaze at through your telescope is the planet Saturn, and it’s very easy to find.

Look high in the south-southeast sky, and it’ll be the brightest starlike object you’ll see in that area. It’s just to the left of the brightest star in the spring constellation Leo. The lion actually resembles a backward question mark, with Regulus making up the dot at the bottom of the punctuation mark.

In addition to the 136,000-mile-wide ring system, you may see tiny little “stars” sprinkled around Saturn, actually some of Saturn’s many moons. It was recently discovered that Rhea, Saturn’s second largest moon, may have its own thin ring system, although with nowhere near the grandeur of mother Saturn. The ringed wonder of our solar system is just shy of 800 million miles from Earth.

The Big Dipper is as high as it gets in the sky, and it’s upside down. The old lore about the upside down Big Dipper is that it means we get more rain because the Dipper is unloading on us. It’s easy to see how that rumor got started, because, at least in the upper Midwest, we get most of our rainfall in the late spring and early summer.

Use the “pointer stars” on the pot section of the Big Dipper opposite the handle to find Polaris, the North Star. Polaris is about three fist-widths at arm’s length down from the pointer stars.

The North Star is the last star in the handle of the much dimmer Little Dipper. Polaris is also a very important star in our sky. Since it shines directly above the Earth’s North Pole, all of the stars in our sky appear to revolve around the stationary North Star once every 24 hours, as the Earth rotates on its axis.

Over in the eastern sky there’s a sideways kite on the rise. It’s the constellation Bootes, which according to the Greeks is supposed to be a farmer. Seeing ­Bootes as a farmer takes one heck of a sense of imagination.

I prefer the easy way out on this one. Look for the sideways kite with the bright orange-tinged star Arcturus at the tail of the kite. Arcturus is easy to find. Not only is it the brightest star in that part of the sky, but you can also extend the arc made by the Big Dipper’s handle to find it. Just arc to Arcturus!

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO radio in Minneapolis and is author of the book, “Washington Starwatch,” available at bookstores and at his Web site, www.lynchandthestars.com.

The Everett Astronomical Society welcomes new members and puts on public star parties. Their Web site is members.tripod.com/everett_astronomy.

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