Big guys vs Hale-Bopp

A comet is about to take on the superheroes, report Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest

They may have lacked television and the movies, but our forebears of several millennia ago had plenty of great stories about superheroes - and they spent their evenings visualising them in a way we can all share today.

The main star-patterns - constellations - we use now date back to the Babylonians, several thousand years BC. They were passed down to us first through the classical civilisations of Greece and Rome, whence the Latin names for the constellations. During the Dark Ages, sky-lore was kept alive in Arab lands, and many stars gained distinctly non-classical names, such as Betelgeuse and Rigel, the two brightest stars in Orion.

This constellation, with its humanoid shape, is on display in the southwest during the evening and with the Plough, is the best known constellation visible from Britain. Betelgeuse marks one of his shoulders, Rigel his knee. A line of three well-matched stars depicts Orion's belt.

In Greek myth, Orion was a great hunter. In the sky, he is facing down a fearsome adversary, the celestial bull Taurus, with bright reddish Aldebaran marking its raging eye. Behind the superhunter follow his two dogs. Canis Major contains the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, dignified by the title the Dog Star. As its pure white light traverses Earth's atmosphere, it is broken up into a twinkling dance of rainbow colours, a gorgeous sight through binoculars. Procyon, in Canis Minor, means "herald of the dog"; it rises slightly ahead of Sirius.

Oddly enough, the greatest hero of Greek myth is represented by a pretty mangy constellation. Look to the northeast in the late evening to see the faint stars making up Hercules. In earlier times, this pattern also represented the greatest of Sumerian heroes, Gilgamesh. It's one of the unsolved puzzles of historical astronomy that this superhero is represented by an insignificant star-pattern rather than the brilliant constellation now named Orion.

Challenging the millennia-long reign of the star-superheroes this month is a brilliant parvenu. Comet Hale-Bopp is flying into the inner region of the Solar System, where the Sun's heat is boiling away its ices into a glowing head and long tail. It's currently on form to rival Sirius, the brightest of the stars.

Until this month, Comet Hale-Bopp was only visible in the morning skies. You can still see it before dawn, towards the northeast, but as the comet heads north and west across the sky, it is putting on an evening performance too - as shown in the chart.

Hale-Bopp has upstaged three other sky-sights that would otherwise have grabbed our headlines this month. To see this month's main event, you'll need to be in Mongolia or eastern Siberia on 9 March: people here will be treated to a total eclipse of the Sun.

Britain is in line for a rather less spectacular event: a partial lunar eclipse during the early hours of 24 March. At maximum eclipse, 92 per cent of the Moon will be hidden. The thin sliver of Moon left will be rivalled by a nearby bright reddish "star" - in fact the planet Mars, this month reaching its closest point to the Earth for 1997. It's visible all night long throughout March, lying to the lower left of Leo.

March diary

2 9.38am Moon at last quarter

9 01.14am New moon; 0.41-2.06am total eclipse of Sun (visible from Mongolia/Siberia)

16 0.06am Moon at first quarter

17 Mars at opposition

24 4.45am Full moon; 2.58-6.21am partial eclipse of Moon

31 7.38 pm Moon at last quarter.

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