Star Charts

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Star Charts

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March 2020

After Sunset

As sunset begins, look high in the west for brilliant planet Venus. It will be the first bright point of light visible as the sky darkens, and easly the brightest nighttime celestial object other than the Moon. Venus will be visible after sunset through the middle of May.

During the autumn and winter, the Big Dipper was buried low to the northern horizon until the wee hours of the morning. As we head towards springtime, it’s getting easier to find in the early evening. We can use the stars of the Big Dipper to help us find Polaris, the North Star. The Big Dipper starts the evening low in the northwest, but will be high enough to easily see by 8 or 9 pm. Use the two stars at the end of the bowl of the Dipper to point you to Polaris. When you face Polaris, you’re facing due north.

Polaris is at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. This group of stars is officially known as Ursa Minor the Little Bear. The Big Dipper is just a part of the constellation Ursa Major the Great Bear.

Imagine poking a hole in the bottom of the Dipper’s bowl. Where does the water fall? Onto the back of Leo the Lion. Look for a backwards question-mark shape representing the head of the lion. The point at the bottom of the question mark is Regulus, the regal heart of the lion.

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 low in the southeast. Neither of these constellations has any other bright stars.

Look to the northwest for a group of five stars known as Cassiopeia the Queen. This group of stars can also help you find the North Star. The central peak of Cassiopeia’s W-shape also points you in the direction of Polaris.

High in the southwest you can find the bright stars of the winter evening sky. The most famous and easily found constellation is Orion the Hunter. Look for the three stars in a straight line that mark his belt, the two stars that mark his shoulders, and the two stars of his feet. Betelgeuse, one of his shoulder stars, is distinctly red in color.

Stay with Betelgeuse for a moment to witness a bit of a cosmic mystery. It’s a red supergiant star almost 2,000 times the diameter of our own Sun. It’s also a variable star, meaning that it gradually changes its size and brightness over time. Since October of last year it’s decreased in brightness much more than usual. Usually the brightest star in Orion, it’s now fainter than Orion’s other shoulder star, Bellatrix. The difference is quite noticable to frequent stargazers.

Betelgeuse is also well-known for being close to the end of its life, ready to go supernova. Astronomers estimate that it may have another 100,000 years left. That may seem like a long time to wait, but it’s a blink of an eye in cosmic time.

Although the star’s sudden dimming is intriguing, there’s not much evidence that a big explosion is imminent. It’s more likely that it will be back to normal within a few months. Keep watching!

Learn to find Orion, and he can direct you to many other sights of the winter sky. Draw a line from Orion’s blue-colored foot Rigel up through Betelgeuse, and keep on going until you run into Gemini the Twins. The bright stars Castor and Pollux mark the heads of the twins. Under dark skies you may just be able to pick out two stick-figure bodies leading back towards Orion.

Follow Orion’s belt down and to the left for the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, in Canis Major the Big Dog. Follow the belt stars up and to the right to find orange star Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the Bull. The face of the bull is a cluster of stars called the Hyades. Along with Aldebaran, the Hyades forms a V-shape.

Look just past Aldebaran and you may see a grouping of stars called M-45, or the Pleiades Star Cluster. With your own eyes, you might just see six stars in the Pleiades. Those with excellent eyesight and dark skies might see seven. Binoculars reveal dozens of stars, while there may be more than a thousand stars in this open cluster.

A Look Ahead

As 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 summer night sky.

Compare the locations of the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia from where you saw them in the early evening. These two star pictures stay on nearly opposite sides of Polaris so that as one is high in the sky, the other dips low to the northern horizon.

By morning, our winter constellations have set in the west, and even Leo the Lion is setting along the western horizon. High in the east are the three bright stars that make up the Summer Triangle.

Just before sunrise, look for three planets in the southeastern sky. Red planet Mars moves relatively fast across the constellations over time, and through March you can watch it approach and pass slower moving Jupiter and Saturn. Mars has a very close approach with Jupiter on the morning of March 20, and reaches Saturn by March 30. Any clear morning this month will be great for finding these three planets. Look for a crescent Moon to join the fun on the morning of March 18.

Desktop planetarium software like the free, open-source Stellarium (stellarium.org) can show you more precisely where night sky objects will be on any date and time, and help you plan your observing.

From Dark Skies

Bright outdoor lighting can make it hard to see all but the brightest stars. On a clear night, find a dark spot far away from city lights, give your eyes time to adjust to the dark, and look for even more celestial sights.

Winter evenings are great for spotting the Milky Way, coursing from the south, high overhead through Cassiopeia, and on towards the northwest horizon.

Just beneath the belt of Orion is a faint patch of light that marks the hunter’s sword. This is M-42, the Great Orion Nebula. A small telescope can reveal the overall shape of the nebula. A quartet of young stars near the center are called the Trapezium. These stars formed out of the gas and dust of the nebula.

Don’t have a telescope? Don’t know where to find dark skies? The next free public star parties hosted by the Barnard-Seyfert Astronomical Society are scheduled for Friday, March 6 from 7:30 to 9:30 pm at Bowie Nature Park in Fairview. Come observe the Moon, Venus, star clusters, and more, through telescopes provided by BSAS members.

Visit the BSAS web site at bsasnashville.com for details. If the weather is bad, the star party will be canceled. Make sure to check their web site for updates before making the trip to a star party, especially if the weather is iffy. On the BSAS web site you’ll also find driving directions and a list of future events.

800 Fort Negley Blvd. Nashville, TN 37203
615-862-5160
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