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Hey…what’s going on?

I thought maybe it was time for a little sky update.  Let’s talk about things happening in the early evening sky right now.

Winter is nearly over, but the sky isn’t quite done with the brilliant stars of winter just yet.  The evening sky is still dominated by the impressive constellation Orion the Hunter, standing tall and proud in the southwestern sky in the early evening.  You can’t miss him.  He’s the guy with the perfect hourglass figure.  Three stars in a perfect straight line mark his famous bejeweled belt.  Two stars above the belt make his broad shoulders, and then two more stars below the belt mark his knees.  Those seven stars are among the brightest we see in the northern hemisphere sky, making Orion a real standout.

Orion the Hunter and his hourglass figure. Image from the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Want to find some additional sky delights?  Use Orion as a jumping off point.  Take the 3 stars of Orion’s belt, and follow the line they make to the right.  You’ll come to a tiny cluster of close-knit stars called the Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters.  This is what astronomers call an open cluster of stars.  About 1000 stars make up the cluster, though with the unaided eye you are likely to see about 5-7 stars total.  Grab a pair of binoculars to see more.  These stars are young and hot, glowing brightly and making the gas around them glow as well.  They were all born together at around the same time, and gravity will keep them together for a while longer yet.  Eventually, the cluster may slowly fall apart, but for now, the Pleiades is one of the most beautiful things you can see in the sky.

The Pleiades Star Cluster, the author’s favorite thing to see in the evening sky.

Lower down, below the Pleiades in the western sky is a dull reddish object that looks like a star.  Ha!  Fooled you!  It’s not a star at all…it’s the planet Mars.  Planets appear like stars in the sky, but if you look closely, you may spot a difference.  Stars will twinkle.  Planets generally won’t.  Twinkling is caused by the motion of the Earth’s air.  But the planets are so close to us compared to the stars that the light from a planet isn’t as easily disturbed by the motion of the air, and therefore, planets don’t seem to twinkle very much, if at all.  Mars is looking small and forlorn these days – it’s moving away from us after a close pass last summer.  But it is still pretty cool to see it up there.

The sky for March 9th around 7pm. Image created with Starry Night.

Finally, quite low to the western horizon will be the Moon…at least on March 9, during our next Stargazing Night.  By then the Moon will be a slim crescent, like the Cheshire Cat’s smile.  Come on out and join us on the evening of March 9 as we get our telescopes out and view the amazing March sky.  If weather doesn’t cooperate, no worries.  The skies are always clear in the planetarium, and Virginia Skies will be showing at 7:30pm.  Stick with us for some great laser shows as well.  It’s a blast!

Well, I hope you enjoyed catching up on what’s up above you!  See you next time!

Kelly

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