Night Lights: Spring — coming to a sky near you

By Andy Veh, for the Redoubt Reporter

Graphic courtesy of Andy Veh

The constellation that always catches my eye in March is Leo. Its shape quite closely resembles that of a male lion lying leisurely, watching the savannah, looking west, in the direction that it will move during the next couple of months. Its right front paw is the bright star Regulus.

While Leo should move across the sky as gingerly as any constellation week after week, it seems to be much speedier than most. What aids or produces that perception is that sunset occurs later and later, about 20 minutes each week. Thus, with it getting darker later every evening, it seems that Leo keeps progressing across the sky faster, because we look at it later when it already has moved further west.

As a result, I perceive Leo as the harbinger of spring. When it appears in the east, winter’s end will soon be here, and when it reaches the western horizon, flowers are in full bloom and deciduous plants will have regained their leaves.

Regulus follows the bright stars of winter, perhaps chasing them off. Lately it’s been Sirius that you’ve been seeing low in the south (its even-brighter counterpart in the southwest is Jupiter). Ahead of it are Betelgeuse, Rigel, Pollux, Castor, Capella, Aldebaran and Procyon, all of them appearing above the southern horizon.

Bright stars in the remaining sky are Deneb and Vega in the north and Arcturus rising in the east in early evening, shortly before Saturn.

Jupiter has been appearing all winter long above the southern horizon. It currently hangs very low in the southwest and west during the early evening, and is joined by the waxing crescent moon March 6.

The best show this month is put on by Mercury. Starting around March 10, look for a relatively bright object beneath Jupiter above the western horizon. During the following week the two get closer until, on March 15, they are right next to each other. After that date Mercury is the one appearing higher than Jupiter. In a telescope that enlarges Mercury’s size sufficiently, you can see how the speedy planet changes its phase from gibbous to crescent within just two weeks.

Saturn rises in the early evening in the southwest and is visible all night. Following right behind is Virgo’s Spica. They are joined by the full moon March 19 and 20.

Venus stays very bright but gets lower toward the eastern horizon during dawn. The waning crescent moon is nearby on Feb. 28 and on March 30. Neptune is close to Venus but it may be hard to spot it, and if so, only with binoculars and a good finder chart.

Uranus and Mars are in upper conjunction with the sun — i.e., they are on the other side and thus lost in the sun’s glare. Pluto is very close to the southern horizon. It could be spotted and one would need an unobstructed horizon — like across the ocean — and a telescope that’s large in aperture or diameter so that it gathers enough light, and also a finder chart.

Andy Veh is a professor of astronomy and physics at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus.

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