Saturn's at its brightest, closest

As Earth continues its orbit around the sun, our view of the night sky is turning away from the bright winter constellations and toward the less-than-awesome spring star patterns on the rise in the east.

The bright winter constellations are still hanging in there in the west, but after next month, most of them will be gone below the western horizon and we won’t see them in the evening again until late next fall.

Despite the fact that we’re kind of in the stargazing doldrums, it’s still worth your time to make the stars your old friends.

Without a doubt, the best thing to gaze at through your telescope this month is Saturn, on the rise in the evening sky and at its brightest and closest for 2011.

And it's easy to find. Just look for the brightest star-like object you can see in low southeastern sky, and that’s it.


Actually, there’s a star just below Saturn that’s almost as bright. That’s Spica, the second-brightest star in the large but faint constellation Virgo the Virgin.

You may also see some of Saturn's many moons sprinkled around the big planet. It was recently discovered that Rea, Saturn’s second-largest moon, may have its own thin ring system, although nowhere near the grandeur of Saturn.

The ringed wonder of our solar system is right around 800 million miles from Earth. It’s great through a telescope, but it’s better to wait until after 10:30 p.m. or so when it’s higher in the sky and you don’t have to look through as much of Earth’s blurring atmosphere.

The Big Dipper is as high as it gets in the sky, and it’s upside down. The old lore about the upside down Big Dipper is that it means we get more rain because the Dipper is unloading on us. It’s easy to see how that rumor got started in the days of old because, at least in the upper Midwest, we get most of our rainfall in the late spring and early summer.

Use the "pointer stars" on the pot section of the Big Dipper opposite the handle to find Polaris, the North Star. The North Star is the last star in the handle of the much dimmer Little Dipper.

Polaris is also a very important star in our sky. Since it shines directly above the Earth’s North Pole, all of the stars in our sky appear to revolve around the stationary star once every 24 hours as the Earth rotates on its axis.

In the eastern sky, there’s a sideways kite on the rise. It’s the constellation Bootes, which according to the Greeks is supposed to be a farmer.

Just look for the sideways kite with the bright orange-tinged star Arcturus at the tail of the kite. Not only is Arcturus the brightest star in that part of the sky, you can also extend the arc made by the Big Dipper’s handle to find it.

What To Read Next
Get Local