One of the earliest signs of spring can be seen in the River Park in the beautiful night skies in March. The great winter constellations, Taurus and Orion, are moving inexorably to the west and Leo is rising to nearly the zenith by 10:00 pm in mid-March. The constellation Leo is easily recognizable as a crouching lion with its brightest star, Regulus, right on the ecliptic (the path of the planets through the sky) and its mane is the distinctive sickle shape (reverse question mark) on its western side.
One of the brightest open clusters in the spring is M44, the Beehive Cluster. Visually, M44 has more than a dozen stars bright enough to be seen as a distinct fuzzy patch with the naked eye. The Beehive Cluster is located between the constellations Leo and Gemini. Imagine a line connecting the bright stars Regulus (in Leo) and Pollux (the eastern star in the star pair Castor and Pollux in Gemini). The Beehive is located slightly below that line and slightly closer to Pollux. M44 is a dazzling sight in any pair of binoculars and it can be seen even with a bright Moon or light pollution. The Beehive Cluster actually contains an estimated two hundred stars and it was first identified as a cluster by Galileo himself.
Most galaxies cannot be seen with a pair of binoculars, but in March we can see a pair of very bright galaxies, M81 and M82, in the constellation Ursa Major (the Big Dipper). Imagine a diagonal line connecting the two corners of the cup of the Big Dipper from the bottom left to top right (pointing away from the handle). Follow the line away from the cup about the same distance as the diagonal across the cup and you will come to two smudges – one long and ray-shaped (M82, known as the Cigar Galaxy) and a brighter spiral galaxy (M81) with a bright rounded core. The two galaxies are approximately 12-13 million light years from us, and they are close enough to each other that they have gravitationally interacted in the past. In fact, M82 is a prototypical “starburst galaxy” with intense star formation activity resulting from its interactions with M81. We now know that galaxies do not evolve alone – they exchange energy and matter with the galaxies around them.
The planet Jupiter is visible all night in March below the hind legs of Leo. Jupiter is as close to Earth as it will be all year, so certain of its surface features and its four Galilean moons should be readily visible in binoculars or a small telescope. Mars rises around midnight during the month and both Saturn and Mars will be visible very near the constellation Scorpius in the hour before sunrise during the month. Mars and Saturn will move closer to each other throughout the month. Venus rises in early March in the east-southeast about an hour before the Sun, but it will be difficult to see as it disappears into the solar glare by early April.