March 19, 2022: Venus and Mars are in a footrace toward Saturn leading up to a rare planetary grouping. The morning moon is in the west-southwest. Cancer is in the south during early evening.
by Jeffrey L. Hunt
Chicago, Illinois: Sunrise, 6:56 a.m. CDT; Sunset, 7:02 p.m. CDT. Check local sources for sunrise and sunset times for your location.
The vernal equinox occurs tomorrow. Daylight is already longer than nighttime at this latitude.
SUMMARY OF PLANETS IN 2022 MORNING SKY
Brilliant Venus and Mars are in the southeastern sky before sunrise. They are racing toward Saturn, to their lower left
At forty-five minutes before sunup, brilliant Venus is nearly 13° above the east-southeast horizon. Dimmer Mars is 4.0° to the lower right.
Saturn, over 6° above the horizon, is 9.1° to the lower left of Venus.
Through a spotting scope or small telescope, Venus displays a very thick morning crescent that is nearly half full, the phase is 49% illuminated.
On March 29, Venus passes 2.1° to the upper left of the Ringed Wonder. The moon is nearby on that morning.
Mars passes Saturn on April 5.
On March 28, Venus, Mars, and Saturn bunch together in a rare clustering of the planets. They fit within a circle, 5.3° in diameter. This is easily within the field of view of a binocular.
In addition to the clustering of the planets, the crescent moon is 7.3° to the lower right of Venus. Depending on the size of the binocular’s field of view, the moon may fit with the three planets.
Such close groupings of three planets are rare events. This triad of planets is not this close again until September 6, 2040. On other occasions, they are somewhat close together, but very widely spaced.
This morning the bright moon, 98% illuminated, is nearly 20° up in the west-southeast. Spica, meaning “the ear of corn,” is 11.8° to the left of the lunar orb.
Jupiter and Mercury are in transition, hiding in bright sunlight. Jupiter is slowly climbing into the morning sky, while Mercury is still west of the sun, but moving toward its superior conjunction with the sun
This morning Mercury passes Jupiter, but they are not visible with usual observing methods. Both rise 18 minutes before the sun.
After Mercury’s superior conjunction, the speedy planet moves into the evening sky for its best appearance of the year.
As the moon rises later each evening, step outside about two hours after sunset. The Orion region is in the western sky. During the spring months, the stars in that part of the sky set earlier each night until they disappear into bright twilight during the warmer months.
The area of the sky east of Orion has fewer bright stars and seemingly empty regions, especially when observed under urban or suburban settings. The brightness of the outdoor lights overwhelms the dimmer stars and other celestial wonders.
The region between Pollux, one of the Gemini Twins, and Regulus, the heart of Leo, seems empty. This is Cancer. The stars are dim, about 30-40 times fainter than the named stars at their borders.
When the constellations were first named in written works, Cancer was behind the sun at the summer solstice. The Crab is used to name the latitude (23.5° North) where the sun is overhead on the first day of summer in the northern hemisphere.
Today, Gemini is behind that celestial point. Earth’s gentle wobble changes the locations of the equinoxes, solstices, and celestial poles among the stars. During the accumulated centuries, the solstice point moved from Cancer westward to Gemini. The slow change continues.
Author Peter Lum, in his book Stars in our Heaven, writes, “The constellation of the crab is one of the faintest in the sky, and certainly it is the most insignificant group of stars that ever held a place in the zodiac. . . Indeed, unless the atmospheric conditions are good, it is practically impossible to find Cancer” (p. 159).
Lum later recounts that a crab was sent to torment Hercules as he fought the multi-headed Hydra. The hero quickly dispensed with the creature by stepping on it. According to the legend, the crab was rewarded with a place in the stars, but without any bright stars.
The Beehive star cluster, cataloged as Messier 44 or simply M44, is among Cancer’s dim starfield. The stellar bunch is also known as the Praesepe or manger. It is about 500 light years away, but its stars appear dimmer than the famous Pleiades cluster.
The Beehive is visible to the unaided eye in a clear sky away from outdoor lighting. Sometimes the best view is when a glimpse is caught from the corner of the eye. The cluster appears twice as large as the moon.
Walter Scott Houston, in Deep Sky Wonders, writes, “In a binocular, M44 is a show object. It has no sharp boundary. No one can say for sure where the cluster’s faint glow merges into the placid sky. And the center is hardly any brighter than the edge” (pp. 86-87).
Aim your binocular midway between Pollux and Regulus. It is easy to find, even without any bright stars.
The Aselli are two stars that seem to flank the star cluster. They are donkeys, one north and one south.
Even as the winter stars head to the western horizon, several dimmer and delicate wonders are east of them and follow them westward.
The Beehive star cluster and Cancer in the south tell us that spring is here.
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