By Peter Becker
The next clear evening look for the planet Saturn by way of the Big Dipper.
In didn't say next to the Big Dipper! I can imagine the emails and calls. I said "by way of" the famous seven stars that outline the Big Dipper, now riding high in the northern sky.
The bright planets are easy to see when they are in the night sky, and not obscured by the glare of the Sun. They may be confused with bright stars, if you haven't yet become familiar with the parade of constellations serving like sign posts over your head, showing your way around the Celestial Sphere.
Probably the most familiar star group in the sky for the northern hemisphere, the Big Dipper is always seen in the north. Depending on the time of year and time of the night, you will see it positioned at various points as it makes a great circle around a point next to the North Star, with every turn of the Earth.
On spring evenings, the Big Dipper seems to be prancing high, leaping as if in joy that the winter is over. The "bowl" of the Dipper is pointed downward, as if it was spilling its contents. The "handle" stars stretch to the right, in a graceful arc.
Continue that arc from the Dipper handle and let it lead you as it curves down to the east and the brilliant orange star Arcturus. Continue this curving line to a bright bluish-white star in the southeast, which is named Spica.
Saturn currently makes a triangle shape with Arcturus and Spica, situated down further in the east-southeast. Saturn will resemble a bright yellowish-white star. Unlike the stars, which seem fixed, the planets appear to gradually move from night to night. Saturn is so distant that it moves ever so slowly, and takes 29 years to go once around the Sun and this our entire sky.
Go back to the bowl of the Big Dipper. The two front "leading" stars serve as a pointer. Going one way, they point to the North Star, which on a spring evening is below the Dipper bowl. Extend the line the other way over your head and down to the south and you reach the bright bluish-white star Regulus, at the bottom of what resembles a backward question mark of stars- or a sickle. This is part of the constellation Leo the Lion.
Starting with the two stars marking the "top" of the bowl of the now upside-down Big Dipper, continue the line far left, to the northwest, where you will find the bright yellow star Capella.
Looking west on a spring evening this year, you won't need the Big Dipper to point to a very bright planet, Jupiter. Although much dimmer than it was a few months ago, Jupiter in is still prominent as the Earth in its faster orbit pulls away from it.
Saturn will appear low in the south at about 1 a.m. A small telescope will reveal its marvelous ring system.
On April 27 Saturn reaches "opposition"when it rises as the Sun sets and is in the sky all night, setting when the Sun rises.
Last quarter Moon is on May 2. Send your notes to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keep looking up!