Here's How to See the 'Stars of Spring' in the Night Sky This Weekend (Video)
When does spring begin? That depends on who you ask. Meteorological spring started on March 1 and continues through the end of May, with summer starting on June 1. Astronomical spring, however, begins at the equinox, which was March 19 in North America. Sky-watchers already know that spring is well underway. How? It’s written in the stars!
Spring is one of the best times to go stargazing in 2020. Since the equinox happened recently, the length of day and night is nearly equal, so there’s plenty of time to go stargazing in the early evening. The new season has brought newly visible constellations and bright stars with it, and it’s also a great time to glimpse an elusive sight in our own solar system.
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The Stars of Spring
A very bright Venus is still dominating our night skies in the Northern Hemisphere. The brilliant planet will stay with us until June, visible high on the western horizon just after dark. For the next few weeks, the three "belt" stars of Orion and Sirius —the brightest star in the night sky — are shining brightly to the south of Venus. In the east, the stars of spring are rising: Regulus in Leo, ruby red supergiant Arcturus in Boötes, and blue-white Spica in Virgo. Go outside at about 10 p.m., and you can find the ultimate "sight" of the season — the "Spring Diamond."
How to Find Regulus and Leo ‘The Lion’
The brilliant winter constellations like Taurus, Orion, and Gemini are slowly sinking in the west come dark, and in their place— high in the sky — is Leo "the lion." Now prowling spring’s night skies, this constellation’s brightest star is Regulus, which is about 78 light years away. To find it, look to the south at about 10 p.m., and you’ll see a shape that looks like a backwards question mark made up of six stars. Regulus is the star at bottom — the dot in the question mark — and it’s easily the brightest star in the constellation.
How to Find the ‘Spring Diamond’
Keeping the position of Regulus in mind, turn to face northeast, and you’ll see the Big Dipper with its handle facing down towards the horizon. Follow that handle in an arc, and you’ll come to Arcturus low in the eastern night sky — it's a red giant star about 37 light years away (and the fourth-brightest star in the night sky). Now take a spike to the southeast, and you’ll see Spica just above the horizon. Spica is 261 light years away. You’ve just gone "arc to Arcturus, spike to Spica," an important navigational "star-hop" only possible in spring. Now find Regulus again, and go back to the bottom star of the Big Dipper’s handle, a star called Alkaid. Just before you get there, you’ll see Cor Caroli, a star in the constellation of Canes Venatici that’s 114 light years away. Together they make the shape of a diamond, or a kite, rising on its side. This is another sure sign that spring has arrived.
How to See the ‘False Dawn’
If you go somewhere very dark this month, it’s possible to see an incredibly delicate celestial sight in the west just after the sun sinks. The "zodiacal light" is a cone of shimmering, faint white light only visible around the spring equinox, and it is the sun’s light being reflected off huge swathes of dust and ice in the solar system — the building blocks of what made the planets, including Earth. It’s often known as the "false dawn," and to see it, you need a clear, dark western horizon for about an hour after sunset. It hangs there for about an hour before fading from view.