March is the last full month to enjoy the full complement of winter constellations. Orion the hunter is still the main attraction in the night sky. As darkness sets in later in the evening, the constellation is about halfway up in the southwestern sky, looking very much like a giant hourglass.
Orion is one of the few constellations that doesn’t make you stretch your imagination too far out of shape. It sort of looks like a hunter, or at least a bulked-up man. Everybody and their brother has seen the three bright stars in a row that make up Orion’s belt, but the biggest shiners are the stars Rigel and Betelgeuse, at Orion’s knee and armpit, respectively.
Orion has lots of celestial friends with him in the southern Shamokin heavens, a cast that includes Taurus the bull, located to the upper right of Orion. It looks like a little arrow, with the moderately bright star Aldebaran as the angry eye of the bull. A great telescope or binocular target in Taurus is the Pleiades star cluster that looks like a mini Big Dipper, made up of hundreds of stars around 100 million years old and about 410 light years away. It’s one of the best things you can see in the winter sky.
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 really 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, one of the springtime 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 the stars of Orion and his gang sink lower and lower in the west. This is because Earth, in its orbit around the sun, 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. Polaris is the “lynch pin” of the sky. All of the stars in our sky appear to circle around the North Star every 24 hours, since it shines directly above the Earth’s North Pole.
Over in the northwest sky, look for the bright sideways “W” that is supposed to be the outline of Queen Cassiopeia tied up in her throne. The story goes that Hera, queen of the Greek gods, was angry with Cassiopeia for boasting that she was more beautiful than the queen herself. Hera tied Cassiopeia up in a throne and cast her up into the heavens, where to this day she continues her endless circle around Polaris.
The only evening planet in the sky throughout the course of March is Mars, but it’s not much of an attraction. It’s the brightest star-like object in the southwestern sky, but through a telescope about all you’ll see is an orange-red dot. Mars is only about 4,000 miles in diameter, and at the start of this month is more than 160 million miles away. The best planet watching is in the early morning sky with the planets Venus, Jupiter and Saturn shining away in the predawn southeast sky.
March star map
You may have one on file, but I’m including one with the position of Mars. To use this map, cut it out and attach it to a stiff backing. Hold it over your head and line up the compass points on the map to the compass points on the horizon where you’re observing from. East and West on this map are not backwards. This is not a misprint. I guarantee that when you hold this map over your head, east and west will be in their proper positions. Also use a small flashlight and attach a red piece of cloth or red construction paper over the lens of the flashlight. You won’t lose your night vision when you look at this map in red light.
(Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul.)