Signs of Spring Abound in the Sky
Across time and cultures, the night skies tell the story of the seasons
The waning gibbous moon rises in the late evening at week’s end, and by the time of last-quarter Tuesday it doesn’t rise until almost 2am. Thursday the 28th, the moon appears within a fraction of a degree from blue-white Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo. Spica’s return to evening skies is a sign that spring isn’t far behind. In Greek lore, Virgo is the goddess of fertility, grieving half the year for her daughter’s return from the underworld.
When the moon rises Friday around 10:30pm, Spica is already there, now 10 degrees to the west. To the other side of the moon is golden Saturn, a little brighter than Spica. All three follow a low arc across southern skies, standing due south at 2am while still less than 20 degrees above the horizon. As daybreak approaches, you’ll find them low in the southwest.
By Sunday, it’s after 2am by the time the moon rises in the southeast. Now it is accompanied by reddish-orange Antares, the heart of Scorpius. This, too, is a harbinger of spring. In Greek mythology, it was the scorpion, sent be the jilted goddess Artemis, that killed the great hunter Orion, and as that constellation sets in the west, Scorpius rises in the east. This is one of the oldest constellations, recognized for more than 7,000 years and dating back to the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia. In the ancient tale of the archetypal hero Gilgamesh, he meets a scorpion-man guarding the gates of the sun at Mount Mashu, and he convinces him to let him pass in order to find the departed sun.
By Tuesday morning the waning crescent moon is well to the west of Antares. Look below the moon for the stars of the scorpion’s stinger, Shaula and Lesath. Native Americans of the Great Plains knew the stinger stars as Swimming Ducks, and looked for their return to mark the end of winter and the return of waterfowl to thawed waters.