Winter sky goes out with a bang

The Sky Guy

Posted: Sunday, March 02, 2008


  Graphic by Andy Veh

Graphic by Andy Veh

As usual, winter ends with a bang because the brightest stars in the prettiest constellations are most prominent in the sky. The view in the diagram is south in early March between 9 and 10 p.m., or late in March around 8 p.m.

The hunter Orion, with its brightest stars Betelgeuse and Rigel, stands above the horizon, hosting the Orion Nebula a nice target for binoculars. To its lower left is the brightest star that we can see from Earth, Sirius that's the one we've been seeing prominently on the southern horizon for the past month when driving on the Kenai Spur Highway or on Kalifornsky Beach Road toward Soldotna in its guide dog, Canis Major.

Procyon in Canis Minor is to its left, Castor above Pollux in Gemini to its upper left Castor itself is a fine triple star in small telescopes Capella close to the zenith and this host of great stars rounded it out by the bull's Aldebaran and the Pleiades seven sisters, Subaru in Taurus.

Quite a bit to the left of these constellations and stars are Regulus and Saturn, whose rings can be seen in a small telescope. The asteroid Ceres, currently in Taurus, can be glimpsed with binoculars but one would need a good finder chart, for example published on Sky & Telescope's Web site.

But mostly it's Mars standing out among all these stars. Unfortunately, it's not a greatest target because only its reddish color and its disk can be seen in binoculars or a small telescope.

The crescent moon will be near the Pleiades on March 11, the now half moon near Mars on March 14, near the star cluster Praesepe also called Beehive on March 16, and the full moon near Saturn on March 18 and 19.

Other stars visible are parts of the "summer" triangle, namely the bright stars Deneb and Vega just above the Northern horizon; because we're so far North, the summer triangle is visible during Alaska winters as well.

Arcturus rises in the east; besides being a bright star, it can also be found by following the Big Dipper's handle, which is curving toward it.

Daylight savings time begins on March 9. The spring equinox occurs on March 19, by definition, this is when day sunrise to sunset and night are of equal 12-hour lengths. Because we're so far West in our Alaska time zone, the "noon" sun will then appear at 2 p.m. with sunrise at 8 a.m. and sunset at 8 p.m.

The diagram was created with the free software Stellarium. I put the moon in the picture because its light illuminates the foreground snow and trees.

Andy Veh is a physics and astronomy instructor at Kenai Peninsula College.

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