Lion of spring stalking across the night sky

By Andy Veh, for the Redoubt Reporter

The constellation that always catches my eye in March is Leo, its shape quite closely resembling 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 others. 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 farther 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 trees will have regained their leaves.

Leo with Regulus follows the bright stars of winter, perhaps chasing them off. Sirius is low in the south, but the brightest star in the sky, as seen from our solar system, is no match for Jupiter and Venus. Ahead of Sirius 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 and Spica rising in the east in the late evening, the latter right next to Mars. The almost-full moon (waning gibbous, actually) is near Mars and Spica on March 18. Saturn follows on their heels with the gibbous moon nearby on March 20.

Jupiter has been appearing all winter long and has been well positioned above the southern horizon for quite some time, between Gemini’s Pollux and Castor and Taurus’ Aldebaran. The first quarter moon appears near the giant planet March 9 and 10.

Venus appears very bright and brilliantly in the morning sky high in the southeast, rising ahead of the sun. I observed it through a small telescope last month with a couple of classes at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School and we saw a beautiful crescent. Right now it’s a half Venus. On March 22 it will be its farthest away from the sun as seen from Earth. It therefore rises the earliest around 6 a.m. The crescent moon will be nearby on March 27.

Uranus and Neptune are not visible this month as they are on the other side of the sun.

Daylight saving time begins the night of March 9-10. That Sunday will only have 23 hours, pushing sunrise and sunset one hour out.

Spring begins in the northern hemisphere March 20, the equinox being defined as equal times of 12 hours each for day and night. Prior to the date the axis in the northern hemisphere points away from the sun, producing shorter days and less intense heating, because the sun is lower in the sky. After that date the axis in the northern hemisphere points toward the sun, producing longer days and more intense heating as the sun is higher in the sky.

Andy Veh is an associate professor of physics, math and astronomy at Kenai Peninsula College.

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Filed under astronomy, Night Lights

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