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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test