Is Winter Over Yet?
With overnight lows in the 30s in Middle Tennessee in late April, maybe you’re left wondering if winter is really over. Spring officially began on March 20, but another sure astronomical sign that spring has arrived is the sight of mighty Orion the hunter setting in the west at sunset. Orion stayed up all night during winter, but now he sets early, and we won’t see him in the evening again until autumn.
Careful observers with a clear horizon might notice a bright point of light low in the west at sunset. It’s not a star, but the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter. On the evening of May 11, a pretty, thin crescent Moon will lie between Jupiter and the horizon. On the evening of May 12, a slightly thicker crescent Moon will sit above Jupiter.
As the month progresses, another bright planet, Venus, will be sneaking up from the horizon to compete with Jupiter.
On the evenings of May 25 - 27, Jupiter and Venus will appear close to one another in the sky. Look at these two planets through binoculars, and you might be able to detect a third point of light in the same view, the closest planet to our Sun, Mercury.
Once the sky gets dark, the Big Dipper will be hanging high in the northern sky. In this position, the dipper is pouring its contents onto the northern horizon. If you have trouble seeing a big soup ladle in the sky, try looking for a kite or a fly swatter in that same pattern of stars. Or, make up your own star picture!
There are only seven stars in the Big Dipper, and they are bright enough to make the pattern stand out. The stars of the dipper are part of a much larger constellation called Ursa Major the great bear. Look at the other side of this chart to find Ursa Major. Many people have a hard time seeing a bear in this part of the sky. Most of the 50 stars of Ursa Major are faint, and even in the darkest skies it takes some dfn imagining to see a bear in that pattern.
Once you find the Big Dipper, find the Little Dipper by drawing a line out of the bowl using the two stars on the outer side of the bowl. This line leads you to Polaris, the north star at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper.
The stars that make up the Little Dipper are part of the constellation Ursa Minor the little bear. None of these stars are very bright, so don’t get discouraged if you can’t see them.
Then, turn around to find Leo the lion high in the southern sky. Regulus is the bright star that marks the heart of the lion. A curving hook represents the lion’s head and fluffy mane. There is a rectangle for his body, and a triangle for the lion’s hind leg and tail.
To the left and east of Leo is the single bright star Arcturus in Bootes the herdsman. Farther to the south of Arcturus is Spica in Virgo the maiden. To the left of Spica is another bright point of light, the planet Saturn.
If you aren’t sure which point of light in the sky is Saturn, look carefully to see if it’s twinkling. Planets usually don’t twinkle. Also watch to make sure it’s not moving like an airplane or satellite!