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Star Charts

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March 2017

After Sunset

If you have a southwest horizon clear of trees or buildings, look low in that direction as the sky begins to darken at sunset. You may see a bright point of light stand out. This is the planet Venus. It will set over the horizon less than an hour after the Sun does. Once Venus has set, look to the southwest for the fainter but distinctively red-orange colored planet Mars. Venus will disappear into the glow of sunset by the middle of the month

March not only comes in like a lion, it comes in with a lion! Leo the Lion is visible to the east throughout March. The head and mane of the lion are represented by a group of stars that looks something like a backwards question mark. Other stargazers imagine the top hook of a coat hanger, or a sickle in this group of stars. The “dot” at the bottom of the question mark is Regulus, the brightest star in Leo. It marks the heart of the lion. Translated from Latin, “Regulus” means “the little king,” which is an appropriate name to go along with the regal “king of the jungle”.

Just above the lion’s back is another springtime favorite, the Big Dipper. As famous as the Dipper is, it’s not always easily visible from our latitude in Tennessee. During the autumn, it stays hidden near the northern horizon, only to emerge in the wee hours of the morning. But in the spring, the Dipper is easy to find high in the evening sky.

Once you’ve found the Dipper, you can use the two stars at the end of the bowl to lead you to Polaris, also known as the North Star. Polaris is not a particularly bright star, but it does remain fixed in the sky throughout the night and throughout the year, always right above due North. When you face the North Star, you’re facing due north.

Face west to say a fond farewell to Orion the Hunter, and Taurus the Bull. As we head further into spring, these famous winter constellations will set earlier and earlier until they are completely hidden by the glow of sunset.

Follow Orion’s belt to the left to find the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, in Canis Major the Big Dog. Follow the belt stars to the right to find orange star Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the Bull.

Draw an imaginary line from bright blue star Rigel, through Betelgeuse, and continue that line on towards Gemini the Twins. The two brightest stars, Castor and Pollux, represent the heads of the mythological twins.

Draw another line, this time across Orion’s shoulders from west to east. You’ll end up at Procyon, part of Canis Minor the Little Dog. Canis Minor is made of only two stars, so you’ll really have to use your imagination to see any sort of four-legged creature here.

Stay Up Late

Take a look up around 10:00 pm. Follow the curved handle of the Big Dipper to trace the ‘arc’ to Arcturus, the orange colored star in Boötes the Herdsman. Then speed on to Spica, the single bright star in Virgo the Maiden. Neither of these constellations has any other bright stars. Even under dark skies away from city lights, it’s hard to imagine these mythological figures just by connecting the dots.

Wait! Be careful! Did you find Spica, or did you find giant planet Jupiter instead? Jupiter currently appears near Spica, but it is much brighter. A good way to tell planet from a star is to check if it’s twinkling. Planets are usually steady shining points of light.

Watch the Clock

For most of the United States, Daylight Saving Time begins at 2:00 am the morning of Sunday, March 12, 2017. Be sure to set your clocks forward one hour before going to bed. This is also a good time to replace the batteries in your smoke detectors to improve safety in your home. Another date to watch for is the first day of spring! The Spring Equinox is on Monday, March 20, 2017.

A Look Ahead

As the Earth orbits the Sun throughout the year, the constellations rise and set just a little bit earlier every day. You won’t see much difference from night to night, but you will over the course of weeks or months. What we see in today’s pre-dawn sky is a preview of the early evening sky in later months. Go out before dawn this month for a look ahead at the spring night sky.

Look low in the southeast to find Saturn. The beautiful ringed planet will return to our early evening skies this summer. Low in the east, the three stars of the Summer Triangle stand out, as if to remind us that warmer weather is on the way!