The Great Winter Constellations are hanging in there
The main attraction for Butler stargazers this March is coming up this week. It’s the tremendous Venus and Jupiter conjunction. It’s the best planet-to-planet conjunction of the year, as far as I’m concerned.
On Wednesday, March 1, look for Venus and Jupiter popping out in the evening twilight, practically “touching” each other in the low western sky. They’ll only be half a degree apart, less than the width of your forefinger held at arm’s length. Venus will be a little brighter than Jupiter.
Don’t miss this show because Jupiter and Venus won’t be in this tight of a celestial hug in the heavens until 2027.
Jupiter and Venus are nowhere near each other. They’re just in the same line of site. Venus is just over 126 million miles away, but Jupiter is more than 536 million miles away.
You’ll easily get both planets in the same field of view through telescopes and binoculars. Venus will appear as a bright oval-ish orb, and you should be able to make out the disk of Jupiter and up to four of its moons.
The best time for viewing with optical aid will be as they first show up in the twilight when you’ll be able to see more detail. As darkness sets in, the glare of Venus will interfere with your view, and both planets will become fuzzier as they near the horizon.
After Wednesday, Venus and Jupiter will start separating. Eventually, you won’t see Jupiter at all, as it sets shortly after sunset toward the end of the month.
The marvelous constellations of winter will put on a great show all month, dominating the south-southwest heavens in the early evenings. Even so, they’re starting their long goodbye.
Majestic Orion is the ringmaster of the winter heavens, surrounded by his posse of bright constellations. They include Taurus the Bull, Auriga the Charioteer, Orion’s hunting dogs Canis Major and Minor, and Gemini the Twins. On a slow retreat from the Earth, the planet Mars migrates from Taurus to Gemini.
You can still see the red-orange hue of Mars with your naked eye, but honestly, being that it’s a small planet now well over 100 million miles away, it’s not much of a telescope target.
The three bright stars in a row that form Orion’s belt jump out at you. Below his belt are three fainter stars in a row that outline the hunter’s sword.
The middle star is the famous Orion Nebula. It appears as a “fuzzy star” to the naked eye and is a superb telescope target, even if you have a small scope.
You’re witnessing a giant cloud of excited hydrogen gas with stars forming gravitationally within it. Traveling there would require a journey of more than 1300 light-years, and just one light-year equals nearly six trillion miles!
You can see a tight cluster of four stars within the Orion Nebula using a small telescope. They’re called the Trapezium stars because they’re arranged in a tight trapezoid pattern.
In the northern sky, the Big Dipper, the rear end and tail of the constellation Ursa Major, the Big Bear, stands on its handle. The fainter Little Dipper, or Ursa Minor, the Little Bear, hangs by its handle to the left of the Big Dipper.
The bright star Polaris, also known as the North Star, shines at the end of the Little Dipper’s handle. Polaris is directly above the Earth’s terrestrial North Pole, so all of the stars in the northern hemisphere appear to circle the North Star every 24 hours in response to the Earth’s rotation.
Make the most of the wonderful night skies of March as the great constellations of winter gradually retreat from the heavens!
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. Contact him at email@example.com.