My resident groundhog is finally out and about, a little slimmer from his long hibernation. Yes, spring IS on its way. The Sun's angle is growing ever steeper. On March 20, it will rise everywhere on Earth exactly east and set exactly west.
Here in the Northern Hemisphere, frigid temperatures and storms make sky watching punishing if not impossible on long winter nights. So as the days lengthen and the temperatures moderate, it's worth taking some time to notice the beauty of the constellations that have been parading our skies while we've been warm inside. By early May, Orion and the 'Winter Circle' will disappear into the haze of sunset, not to reappear until the August dawn.
Other than the Big Dipper, Orion is the most recognizable constellation, and it will be easy to spot over the next few weeks as he stands high above after sunset. Look for 3 stars close together that look as if they're forming a straight-ish line: that's Orion's belt. Above that, he's wielding a shield in his left hand; a club extends from his right.
Orion is big. If you have a limited view, you might not be able to see him entirely. The Winter Circle is even larger, requiring an unobstructed view of about 100º. The Winter Circle is an asterism, a pattern of stars often belonging to different constellations that is highly recognizable. The seven stars that compose the Winter Circle rank within the top twenty-four brightest stars, which makes this asterism especially important for star navigation. Sirius, alpha star of constellation Canis Major, is the brightest of all, followed by Capella (6), Rigel (7), Procyon (8), Aldebaran (14), Pollux (18), and Castor (24). At the winter solstice, the Winter Circle rises after sunset and travels the sky all night long. Now, after sunset in early March, it stands at the meridian, high in the sky, setting around midnight.
This weekend's moon can help identify both Orion and the Winter Circle. On Friday night, the waxing crescent moon will be close to Aldebaran, alpha star of Taurus and the western edge of the Winter Circle. On Saturday, the moon will be at first quarter, still in Taurus, just above Orion and smack-dab in the middle of the Winter Circle. Sunday and Monday the gibbous moon joins Jupiter in Gemini, closer to the eastern edge of the Winter Circle with Pollux and Castor and Procyon close.