By Sheila Vincent, Delaware Nature Society Group Programs Coordinator
Don’t confine your search for signs of spring to the daylight hours; if you know where to look, the night sky can show you the season as surely as blooming flowers or singing birds.
The familiar Big Dipper is the key to finding your way around the sky. Locate it fairly high in the northeast, sitting on its handle at nightfall. You probably know that drawing a line from the two stars on the end of the bowl (the “pointers”) will lead you to the North Star on the end of the Little Dipper’s handle – they Point to Polaris.
If you extend your line down through Polaris you can Cruise to Cassiopeia. This zigzag constellation is not itself a sign of spring, but its low placement in the early evening is; in wintertime this vain queen’s throne sits high in the sky at nightfall – about where the Big Dipper is now.
Go back to the pointers and draw a line in the opposite direction, away from Polaris; you will Leap to Leo, zodiacal lion and true herald of the season. Prancing along the ecliptic (Imaginary line that traces the path of the planets, sun, and moon across the sky. The bright star Regulus – “Leo’s front paw” – sits right on this line.) Leo leads the parade of spring Zodiac constellations higher each night, even as those of winter fade into the west.
To the Big Dipper we go once again! After about 8:30, follow the curve of the handle downwards to Arc to Arcturus. This brilliant, orangey star’s early rising is a beacon of spring in the evening sky, its appearance anticipated and welcomed by winter-weary stargazers.
By about 9:30, if you extend a slightly diagonal line from Arcturus, down and to the right, you can Spike to Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, next in line behind Leo in the seasonal Zodiacal parade.
As sure a sign of spring as Leo’s rise is Orion’s descent. Find him low in the southwest at nightfall and feast your eyes every chance you get. After dominating the winter sky, this superb constellation is on the wane, setting earlier each evening and entirely gone by May.
Let’s hope for many clear nights this spring and beyond. There is nothing quite like the grand experience of being under a dark, glittering sky and knowing where and when you are! Enjoy!
Beginner’s Challenge: Find Sirius, the brightest star in the sky (before it’s gone!). Hint: Sirius is also known as the “Dog Star”, since it is located in the constellation Canis Major – the Big Dog. Look for him leaping at Orion’s heels, low in the southwest. Beware of the brightest object in the sky though! Brilliant even at dusk, the planet Venus is blazing high in the southwest.
Expert Challenge: After its unprecedented minimum, Betelgeuse began rebrightening about a month ago. Has it reached its previous maximum? How accurately can you estimate its magnitude (before it gets too caught up in atmospheric haze)?
Looking for spring constellations can be a bit tough when the weather is cloudy and rainy. So instead you can make your own to view inside! This is a great activity for any age. You can use the free printables found here: Flashlight Constellation Printables or you can create your own!
What you’ll need:
- Constellation cutouts. (Work best if glued to cardstock, cardboard, or dark paper)
- Light source: flashlight or phone light
- Push pin, needle, or small hole punch
- Toilet paper roll
First print out the constellation cutouts or create your own by tracing circles on your paper using the end of the toilet paper roll and then drawing the constellations. Taking a push pin or small hole punch carefully punch holes in the paper. Once your holes are punched, cut out the circle cards and carefully tape one to the end of a toilet paper roll. Finally, tape the other end of the toilet paper roll to your flashlight or phone so the light shines through. Project your constellation formations on a wall or ceiling in your house! Works best if the room is dark.
Space images courtesy of Stellarium.