Although some of the winter constellations - Orion; Auriga; Cancer; Canis Major and Minor; and Gemini - are still visible in the western part of the night sky, the spring constellations will now occupy the dominant overhead (or nearly so) position by late evening in the coming weeks.
Leo - the Lion is a large constellation straddling the southern meridian (an imaginary line drawn from the northern horizon up through the zenith and down to the southern horizon) around 10 p.m. It is not a difficult constellation to find and recognize, as it is one of the few constellations that actually resembles the creature it is named for - in this case, a majestic lion. The head and chest of Leo is easily spotted - a large, reverse question mark-shaped arrangement of stars (an asterism called "The Sickle", after the harvesting tool it resembles) facing to the west. The bottom "dot" star of the lion's head and chest is Regulus (meaning "the little king"), a whitish blue, double star (visible using binoculars), shining at magnitude +1.37, and at a distance of 77.5 light-years from Earth.
"Leo" is Latin for "lion" and, according to Greek mythology, represented the Nemean lion killed by the great Greek hero Heracles (Hercules to the Romans) as part of his 12 labours imposed on him by King Eurystheus of Mycenae as penance for killing Heracle's wife and children. The Nemean lion was said to have been a huge, ferocious beast whose hide was so tough that arrows bounced off it. Unable to stab it, Heracles strangled it to death. After slaying the beast, he skinned it using one of the lion's own claws and wore its hide, complete with the head, as proof of his success and prowess. That is why all artistic depictions of Heracles/Hercules show him wearing a lion skin and head.
Look for Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars in the southeast as the pre-dawn sky begins to brighten. Jupiter (magnitude -1.9) will sit highest to the upper right, with Saturn (magnitude +0.7) to its lower left, and Mars (magnitude +0.9) between the two larger and brighter planets.
Mars is drawing closer to Saturn and will be in conjunction with it at the end of the month. Mercury hugs the horizon and is very difficult to see.
Venus (magnitude -4.2), our "evening star", sits high in the southwest about one hour before sunset. It reaches its greatest eastern elongation (angular distance from the sun as seen from Earth) on the evening of March 24.
Watch the waxing moon climb higher in the early evening sky on successive evenings, starting on the 25th (the one-day-old moon will be an extremely thin crescent close to the horizon) until, at nightfall on March 28, it sits just to the left of Venus.
Until next time, clear skies.
March 24 - New moon; moon at apogee
- Venus at greatest eastern elongation from the sun
Glenn K. Roberts lives in Stratford, P.E.I., and has been an avid amateur astronomer since he was a small child. He welcomes comments from readers, and anyone who would like to do so is encouraged to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.