Stars and Planets: March

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."

WHAT'S UP

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.

HEATHER COUPER

AND NIGEL HENBEST

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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Sport
The RBS Six Nations trophy at the Aviva Stadium ahead of Ireland vs England
rugby
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
music
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
News
i100
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: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?