Spring’s Swimming Ducks
Sunset reveals the two brightest planets, Jupiter, almost overhead, and Venus, high in the southwest. Equipped with a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, you may be able to spot a third planet, distant Uranus, which appears near Venus.
The moon rises around 8pm Thursday, with ruddy Mars less than 10 degrees away. By 2am, now Wednesday morning, moon and Mars are high in the south, and with sunrise they are above the west horizon. Nearing its closest point to Earth in two years, Mars grows brighter night by night.
The waning gibbous moon rises around 11pm Saturday and is just a few degrees below Spica with golden Saturn just a few degrees farther off. They travel westward together across the sky until dawn Sunday, when they appear well above the southwest horizon.
Last-quarter moon rises around 2am Wednesday at the head of Scorpius. To the west are the scorpion’s claws, to the east its fiery-red heart, Antares, the 16th brightest star in the night sky. In the hour before dawn, the moon and Antares are near 30 degrees above the horizon, but the scorpion’s tail is just rising. Look for the two stinger stars, Shaula and Lesath, less than one-half degree apart. Called the Swimming Ducks, this pair returns to morning skies to signal the coming of spring.
From our latitude, the ducks never climb high above the horizon, so they might easily go unnoticed. From the Arabic Al Shaulah, the sting, Shaula is the 24th-brightest star in the sky, although it is actually a binary star. The larger of its two alone is 35,000 times more luminous than our sun and is nearing the last throes of hydrogen fusion, destined to either explode as a super-nova or collapse as a white dwarf. Dimmer Lesath, 12,000 times brighter than the sun, is approaching the same end.