Despite our recent snowy, cold spell, signs of spring are everywhere as the earth awakens from its winter hibernation. Long ago, the Celts of pre-Christian western Europe called this time of year the quickening. To them, all objects of Earth — not just creatures, but trees, stones and the ground itself — were alive, all sharing the same sap of life. Now, deep within the still-bare trees, the sap of life flows, birds build new nests; shoots of the earliest spring flowers pierce the frozen soil. All around us, the earth’s pulse is picking up its pace.
These last weeks before the vernal equinox bring some of the greatest seasonal changes. Perhaps most noticeable is the growing length of daylight. Since solstice, December 21, we have gained more than an hour of sunlight in both the morning and at day’s end. Now, as the earth reaches an apex in its elliptical orbit around the sun, the days grow longer all the faster, adding another 20 minutes of sunlight in the morning and nearly 15 minutes in the afternoon between now and equinox March 21.
Overhead, too, the changing constellations foretell the coming of spring. The familiar shape of Leo the lion crouches over the eastern horizon, its blazing heart, Regulus, piercing the darkness. Following the great lion is Virgo, the goddess of crops and harvest, holding in her hand an ear of wheat in the form of the brilliant star Spica.
Behind those two zodiacal constellations is Boötes, the herdsman of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. In Greek legend, Boötes is Arcas, son of the nymph Callisto and Zeus and the first to tie a team of oxen to plow, revolutionizing farming and ushering in the era of agriculture that led to the rise of civilization. Each year, Boötes returns to our evening skies to usher in the spring planting season.
All five planets grace our darkened skies this week, with Jupiter appearing at sunset followed by Mars and Saturn later in the evening. Venus rises in the east around 4am — 5am with Sunday’s implementation of Daylight Saving Time. And Mercury glimmers low in the east-southeast during dawn, far to the lower left of Venus.
Thursday, March 6, the moon nears the constellation Taurus and its first-magnitude star Aldebaran, which is to the upper left of the moon.The Pleiades star cluster is to the upper right of the moon, while the bull’s V-shaped face, the Hyades, is farther to the upper left of the moon. Friday night the moon is just two degrees above Aldebaran, which is roughly the width of a finger held at arm’s length.
Sunday and Monday nights, the waxing gibbous moon joins bright Jupiter. Farther below the moon is the first-magnitude star Procyon of Canis Minor, the Little Dog.
Daylight Saving Time begins at 2am Sunday morning, when we spring forward an hour. While we’ll lose an hour’s sleep in the morning, it will provide a reprieve for night-time sky-watching.
The International Space Station races across our predawn skies. Tuesday it appears above the south-southwest horizon at 6:43am and arcs to the east-southeast horizon before setting at 6:46am. Thursday, March 13, it appears in the southwest at 6:40am and sets six minutes later in the northeast. It’s brighter than any star and moves faster than a jet.