Stars and Planets: March

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Take a look at brilliant Jupiter this month – you can't miss it, the giant planet's the brightest thing in the evening sky – and you may notice a faint, fuzzy patch of light nearby. A pair of binoculars will reveal that it's a ball of faint stars.

Take a look at brilliant Jupiter this month – you can't miss it, the giant planet's the brightest thing in the evening sky – and you may notice a faint, fuzzy patch of light nearby. A pair of binoculars will reveal that it's a ball of faint stars.

The name of this star cluster, Praesepe, means "the manger", and, to the ancient Greeks, it feeds two asses represented by the stars above and below it. In mythology, the asses were ridden by two gods in their wars against the hideous Titans. The gods weren't doing too well until the asses brayed at full volume, scaring off the Titans for good. In thanks, the animals were given a position in the sky, with a manger permanently full of hay.

The Chinese had other ideas. In their astrology, this part of the sky was filled with doom and gloom, and they called the fuzzy patch Tseih She Ke – "the exhalation from piled-up corpses". Amateur astronomers today, with telescopes revealing dozens of stars swarming together in Praesepe, have nicknamed it "the beehive".

The Greeks had more practical uses for Praesepe. According to the great historian and naturalist Pliny, "if Praesepe is not visible in a clear sky, it is a presage of a violent storm". The explanation is not astronomical, rather meteorological. If you can see the brighter stars but not a fuzzy patch like Praesepe, then there's almost certainly thin cirrus cloud high overhead. And cirrus tends to move in ahead of a weather front, with its clouds, rain and winds.

Praesepe is far from being the only star cluster on display this month. Over in the west, the constellation Taurus (the bull) boasts two more. Around the angry "eye" of the bull, the red star Aldebaran, you'll see a scattering of stars. This is the Hyades. It's the closest of all star clusters to us – so near that we can see the individual stars with the naked eye.

Roman country people saw these stars as "the little pigs", because they cluster round bright Aldebaran like piglets around a sow. But Pliny insisted on a meteorological derivation; the only reason he could see for this porcine name was that the Hyades set at a time of the year when the weather was wet, so these stars seem to wallow in the mud!

Also in Taurus, we can find the most delightful of all star clusters – the Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters. It's one of the few star patterns to be mentioned in the Bible, when God asks Job: "Canst thou bind the sweet influences of the Pleiades?" On the other side of the world, the Polynesians saw this star group as the many eyes of Rigi, a worm-god who tried to raise the heavens but broke into pieces under the strain.

In Greek mythology, the Pleiades were seven sisters who were pursued by the mighty hunter Orion. The king of the gods, Zeus, saw that they were in danger, and flung them up into the heavens. Once in his abode, they weren't entirely safe, though: they all became mothers, by either Zeus, Poseidon or Ares!

But how many "sisters" in fact are there? Most people don't see seven. With moderate eyesight, six are clearly visible. If you have excellent vision, you may see nine or 10. The Victorian astronomer William Rutter Dawes claimed that he could see 13. Many years ago, Sir Patrick Moore, on his Sky at Night television programme, asked viewers to report on how many they could see: the answers ranged fairly evenly from five to 12: the average was seven.

Leaving mythology and practical astronomy aside, the last word on the Pleiades must go to Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Whenever we gaze on the Pleiades on a dark crisp night, we recall Tennyson's immortal words, in his poignant poem of lost love, "Locksley Hall":

"Many a night from yonder ivied casement, ere I went to rest,

Did I look on great Orion sloping slowly to the West.

Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro' the mellow shade,

Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid."


Giant Jupiter rules the evening skies, brighter than any star and dominating the rather paltry constellation of Cancer (the crab). To its right lie the "twin" stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux. To the right again, you'll find a second giant planet, Saturn, gleaming with a rather less intense glow than Jupiter.

Saturn lies within the constellation Taurus (the bull). Below it lie the seven familiar stars of Orion (the hunter), now sinking into the west as winter begins to give way to spring.

The "spring constellations" rising on the other side of the sky are a fairly dull lot. You can locate two of the brighter stars by using the curved "tail" of the great Bear (Ursa Major, or the Plough) as a guide. Follow the curve and you come first to the orange star Arcturus – its name in Greek means "bear-driver" – and then on to Spica, the brightest star in the Y-shaped constellation of Virgo (the virgin).

In the morning skies, the planet Venus is brilliant, low in the east. Mars lies round to its right, reddish in colour but no brighter than the most prominent stars.



A documentary on the space shuttle, written by Nigel Henbest, will be broadcast at 9pm on Monday 17 March, Channel 4