Spring can take you on a ‘twilight journey’
Astronomical twilight has a very precise definition, but you wouldn’t have needed to know that to appreciate the evening sky on the last Friday in March.
The western sky was a deep blue, not quite devoid of color, a little more than an hour after sunset.
A three-day old crescent moon, illuminated by a sun well below the horizon, invited those who took pause from a busy and stress-filled day to enjoy the tranquil and silent spectacle playing out in the heavens.
The waxing moon was only visiting that evening and has since continued its journey to the east, leaving Venus as the centerpiece in the west.
Throughout this month, Venus will reach peak brightness before disappearing below the horizon, only to reappear in the morning sky.
Earlier this month, Venus shone brightly above the waxing moon.
The Pleiades, an ancient asterism, was a bit more difficult to find, dimmed by its much brighter companions.
To the west was the constellation Perseus with Algol the Demon Star - to the east was the constellation Taurus, marked by the red giant star Aldebaran.
April marks the disappearance of many of the most recognizable constellations, heralds to winter that first appeared in our evening skies last autumn, including Orion the Hunter.
Just east of Taurus, the Hunter (in Greek mythology) is easily recognizable by the three, blue-white, belt stars and the red supergiant Betelgeuse marking the giant’s left shoulder.
Betelgeuse caused quite a stir in the astronomical community over the past year with unprecedented dimming. Now brightening, this incident is a reminder that even stars have a finite lifetime and at some point in the future, our view of Orion will be forever changed when Betelgeuse goes supernova and disappears from our sky.
To complete our twilight journey, we only had to follow Orion’s belt stars to the east, which brought us to the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, the Dog Star, in the constellation Canis Major.
Its status is boosted by its proximity, being roughly eight light years away.
With spring, Sirius will follow the stars of Orion as they are carried below our horizon by the rotation of the Earth.
In these disquieting times, primal astronomy — exploring the night sky as your ancestors would have done — can provided a welcome distraction.
Thousands of years ago, people were keen observers of the sky, depending upon its astral patterns for navigation, planting and harvesting, and recording the passage of time.
Storytelling was used to reinforce pattern recognition —rich mythologies that can still be entertaining or enlightening today.
While the McCarthy Observatory is closed during the current health crisis, astronomy can still be a great way to reduce anxiety and unwind — all one needs is a clear night and a warm coat.
Bill Clouter is a volunteer at the John J. McCarthy Observatory in New Milford.