Mike Lynch’s Skywatch: March is prime time for winter stargazing

28February 2021

Diagram courtesy of Mike Lynch

It’s the best of all worlds, looking out from our world this month. March stargazing is fantastic because you still have Orion and all of the great constellations of winter in the evening skies, but the chill of winter has eased a bit.

The only planet visible to the naked eye in the evening is Mars, and even through a larger telescope it’s not much of a show. It’s getting so far away from Earth that it will just appear as an orange-red dot, and that’s about it. Nonetheless, Mars will still put on a bit of a show this week as it passes by the Pleiades, the bright star cluster otherwise known as the “Seven Little Sisters.” Mars will be closest to the Pleiades this coming Thursday and Friday. It should be a nice view through a pair of binoculars.

Orion the Hunter and the rest of the winter constellations are still the main attractions of the March evening sky. This will be their last stand as they begin their gradual exit in April. As darkness sets in later in the evening, Orion stands proudly in the southwestern sky. It’s is one of the few constellations that doesn’t make you stretch your imagination too far out of shape. It really does resemble a mighty hunter, or at least a bulked-up man. The brightest stars are Rigel and Betelgeuse, at Orion’s knee and armpit, respectively. In between are the three bright stars evenly lined up in a perfect row that depict Orion’s belt.

Orion has lots of celestial friends with him in the southern heavens, a cast that includes the constellation Taurus the Bull, to Orion’s upper right. It looks like a little arrow, with the moderately bright star Aldebaran marking the bull’s angry eye. Just next to Aldebaran is the Pleiades star cluster.

Orion also travels through the heavens with the constellations Auriga the Goat Farmer; Gemini the Twins; and Canis Major and Minor, Orion’s big and little hunting dogs. After this month, Orion and his gang will start their gradual slide toward the western horizon. I think you owe it to yourself to get out into the dark countryside to see the best of the winter sky. It will take your breath away!

In the east, look for a distinctive backward question mark that outlines the chest and head of Leo the Lion. It’s one of the first spring constellations. Regulus is the moderately bright star at the bottom of the question mark that sits at Leo’s heart. As March continues, Leo will get higher and higher in the sky in the early evening, as Orion and his gang sink lower and lower in the west. As it orbits the sun, Earth is starting to turn toward spring constellations like Leo, and away from the wonderful stars of winter. Enjoy them now while they’re still at the celestial center stage.

In the north sky, the Big Dipper is standing up on its handle. The fainter Little Dipper is off to the left, hanging by its handle. The brightest star, Polaris, otherwise known as the North Star, shines at the end of the Little Dipper’s handle.

In the northwest sky, look for the bright sideways “W” that outlines Queen Cassiopeia tied up in her throne. Hera, queen of the Greek gods, was angry with Cassiopeia for boasting of being more beautiful than she was. She tied Cassiopeia up in her throne and cast her up into the heavens!

Once you cast your eyes into the heavens this month, you won’t want to bring them back to Earth. It’s wonderful up there!

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net. Mike is available for private star parties. You can contact him at mikewlynch@comcast.net.

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