| Mar 05, 2009

Back to HomeNight Skies - February Venus Gives A “Double Vision” Opportunity

by Leo Enright

With the coming of the month of March, as evening twilights advance, we can see the bright and now-familiar winter constellations come into view, no longer in the southern sky, but advancing into the southwestern part of the sky, and those who watch the sky well into the night will see those winter constellations setting about midnight.

Included in this group are Orion the Great Hunter, and following him his canine companions, Canis Major and Canis Minor, whose shining eyes are marked by Sirius and Procyon, two of the sky’s brightest stars. Above Orion’s head we see the Heavenly Twins, Castor and Pollux, standing side by side. Moving up into the eastern evening sky during advancing twilight we can easily notice the outline of the first large springtime constellation, Leo the Lion. Its starry outline resembles a ‘backwards question-mark’ outlining the large feline’s head and front paws and a large triangle outlining its hind quarters. At the foot of the backwards question-mark is the very bright star Regulus, usually seen as the brightest object in the constellation, but this year Saturn will be in the area, in fact, below the triangle just mentioned and being brighter than Regulus, Saturn may confuse some people into thinking that it is a normal part of the constellation.

This month, as you watch Leo the Lion, accompanied by Saturn, climb up into the night sky, remember that the old saying about the month of March is actually an astronomical expression as well as a piece of weather lore: “In like a lion; out like a lamb!” meaning (to astronomers) that, as Leo the Lion enters the eastern evening sky, Aries the Lamb is leaving the western evening sky. After seeing the large Feline these evenings, turn westward to see the three bright stars of Aries the Ram/Lamb, in the shape of a hockey stick, sinking toward the western horizon.

Among the five bright planets that may normally be seen with the unaided eye, three of them are easily seen this month and two are visible only with great difficulty from our latitude. Mercury and Mars are the extremely difficult ones, being very low on the eastern horizon about a half-hour before sunrise – Mercury for only a few days during March, and Mars for most of the month, but even for Mars an almost perfect horizon is required, and few people, if any, from this latitude will actually see it.

Venus and Saturn will make up for what Mercury and Mars do not provide. Venus will continue to be extremely brilliant in the western sky and visible there right after sunset, and possibly even before sunset, for those who look very carefully and use a building to shade their eyes from the sun. Use binoculars or a small telescope to see that Venus is now a slim crescent, like a very young moon, but do NOT use your binoculars or scope before sunset to avoid the danger of looking at the sun; use them after the sun sets. As the month advances, Venus will be lower each evening, and on March 27 Venus will officially stop being an evening star and cross over to the other side of the sun and become a morning star for next eight months. This will not be like the extremely rare “crossing over” of 2004 when the planet Venus actually could be seen transiting or going directly in front of the sun. This time it will cross well above the sun and on occasions when that happens (once every eight years) the planet may be seen right up to the day of the crossing over and sometimes for another day or two, AND it may be seen in the eastern morning sky for a few days BEFORE it has officially left the evening sky!! In other words, for about a week, beginning about March 20th, Venus may be seen BOTH in the western evening sky and in the eastern morning sky ON THE SAME DAY, if the observer has a very good view of the horizon in both directions. Try it! If you have good weather and an excellent view of both horizons, try seeing Venus very low in the west a half-hour after sunset and very low in the east a half-hour before sunrise between those dates, that is, between March 20 and 28.

Saturn, as stated above, is seen among the stars of the “hindquarters of Leo the Lion” rising in the east in evening twilight and visible moving across the sky during the entire night. A small telescope or binoculars will show one or several of Saturn’s many moons and also the rings, but remember that the angle of the rings is now such that they appear very thin. Remember, too, to wait until Saturn has risen well above the eastern horizon to view it with the scope or binoculars, in order to have the clearest view possible.

The planet Jupiter is visible all month, but it is still not as well placed as it will be later in the year. This month it may be seen low in the east at about a half-hour before sunrise, if you have a good view of the eastern horizon, and as the month progresses it will be seen slightly higher each morning.

Several moon-planet conjunctions are worth watching this month. On the morning of March 17 the waning moon will appear near bright star Antares. In the eastern morning twilight on both March 22 and March 23 the thin crescent moon will appear beside the planet Jupiter, and on the 24th, it will be very low near the horizon and appear close to Mars. In the evening sky on March 29 the waxing crescent moon will appear below the famous Pleiades Star Cluster, and on the evening of the 30th, it will appear above the same cluster. Try not to miss any of those sights.

More information about the night sky and observing its many wonders may be found in the book, The Beginner’s Observing Guide, now available at Sharbot Lake Pharmacy and on the internet at www.rasc.ca/publications .

More information about observing the spring and summer sky is available in the book entitled “The Beginner’s Observing Guide” which is now available at Sharbot Lake Pharmacy and on the internet at www.rasc.ca/publications.

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