Starwatch: Last call for winter constellations
March is the last full month to enjoy the full complement of winter constellations over Rochester. 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 does kind of look like a hunter, or at least a big human being, possibly on steroids. 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 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. This winter the bright planet Jupiter, still the brightest star-like object in the sky, has been residing in the constellation Taurus and is a wonderful telescope target.
Another great telescope or binocular target in Taurus that's a permanent resident is the Pleiades star cluster, which 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. This isn't exactly last call, but after this month Orion and his gang will start their gradual slide toward the western horizon. You absolutely 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 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 linchpin 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 her up in a throne and cast her up into the heavens, where to this day she continues her endless circle around Polaris.
In the east, look for a distinctive backward question mark that outlines the chest and head of Leo the Lion, one of the 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 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 on the celestial center stage.
Comet Pan-STARRS Update
It's been a while since we've been able to see a comet with the naked eye around here, but we may get a chance this week. It's called Comet Panstarrs, and mainly during the second week of March, it'll be visible in the low western sky in the evening twilight. It's debatable that you'll able to see it with the naked eye, but a small telescope or a decent pair of binoculars should do it. On March 13, it'll be just to the lower right of the thin crescent, and on March 14, it'll be a little farther away from the crescent moon in the west because the moon will start out the evening higher in the western sky.
You'll probably be underwhelmed with Comet Panstarrs, but hang in there, comet fans. Comet Ison is on the way to our skies and should be a lot brighter … maybe. Stay tuned!
Instructions for using the star map
Cut out the map and attach to a stiff backing. Hold it over your head and line up the compass points to the points on the horizon. Use a flashlight with a red piece of cloth or red construction paper over the lens to protect your night vision.