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Starwatch: Here’s the swan song of winter star-watching

February 25, 2017 GMT

We have the best of all worlds looking out from our world this month. March stargazing is fantastic because you still have Orion and all the great constellations of winter — the best of the year in my opinion — but you’re not going to freeze off any body parts.

One thing I don’t like is that in two weeks, on March 12, daylight savings time begins and stargazing can’t really get started until 8 p.m. I love being able to stargaze right after supper!

The grand winter constellation Orion the Hunter and his gang of other bright stars and planets continue to light up the southern heavens. There’s Taurus the Bull; Auriga, the chariot driver turned goat farmer; the big and little dogs Canis Major and Minor; Gemini the Twins; and of course, Orion the Hunter with his three perfectly aligned belt stars.

Just below the stars you can easily spot is the Orion Nebula, a great destination for your telescope, even if you have a small one. You’re witnessing an excited birth cloud of hydrogen gas with storms forming within it over 1,500 light-years away. With even a small scope, you can see four stars that were born out of the Orion Nebula arranged in a trapezoid pattern near the center of the cloud. One of the stars may be as young as 50,000 years old, which, believe it or not, would make it a stellar infant.

In the north, 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.

Over in the northwest, 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 springtime 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 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 at the celestial center stage.

As far as planets available in the evening, you can still easily see Venus and Mars fairly close to each other for about the first half of March in the low western sky. Venus is by far the brighter of the two, with Mars the next brightest star-like object you can see, just to the upper left of Venus. The two planets are separated by less than 20 degrees, about two widths of your fist held at arm’s length.

It’s still a ways off, but on Aug. 21, there’ll be a total eclipse in the contiguous 48 states in a diagonal strip from Oregon to the South Carolina. It’s worth traveling to witness this amazing event.

In Rochester we’ll have significant partial eclipse, with over 80 percent of the sun eclipsed by the moon. You’ll need special eclipse glasses to safely watch the moon creep across the sun’s face. You never want to stare at the partially eclipsed sun without them. You can really damage your eyes, or worse!