The Space Place: A hopeful spring this year

The D.C. area made it to another spring season. One that in all likelihood will be far better than spring last year.

Most have been doing their utmost to survive through the pandemic, the election, the Capitol riot and winter. Hope springs eternal on March 20 when over 100 million Americans should have at least one COVID-19 vaccination. Time will come when it would be possible to see the cherry blossoms in person, see children go back to the classrooms, and celebrate March Madness with others.

March 1, marked “meteorological spring,” and the universe is still in working order to bring “astronomical spring,” known as the vernal equinox which occurs March 20 at 5:37 a.m.

On the equinox, the sun rises due east and sets due west so night and day are just about equal in both hemispheres.

Another astronomical sign of spring is that the constellations of winter — Orion the Hunter and others — are now in the southwestern and northwestern sky as it gets dark with the spring constellations — Leo the Lion et al — rising in the East.

Be sure to look for the fourth brightest star in the night sky, Arcturus, at about 9:30 p.m. You can’t miss it in the northeastern sky. Oh, and the Big Dipper is just to the left of Arcturus.

The Big Dipper’s “bowl” and “handle” are easily visible in this vertical view. The “arc” of the dipper’s handle curves towards the bright star of Spring, Arcturus, visible on the horizon – “follow the arc to Arcturus.” Arcturus is the 4th brightest star in the whole night sky and is a beautiful sight of Spring’s night skies. Arcturus means “Bear Watcher” which makes sense when you learn that the Big Dipper is really the constellation “Ursa Major,” the “Big Bear.”

March is named for Mars, and the red planet is a far cry from its blazing appearance last year. It is in the southwest sky at dark and is keeping the Pleiades or Seven Sisters star cluster company.

Keep up with NASA’s latest Mars Rover, Perseverance, which landed on Mars last month.

Mars is the only planet easily visible right now, as the four other visible planets, Mercury and Venus, are too close to the Sun, while Jupiter and Saturn are in the eastern predawn sky about 40 minutes before sunrise. Saturn is the higher and dimmer of the two.

The full worm moon occurs March 28 at 2:48 p.m. and will be a glorious sight among the stars of spring.

This month marks my 15th year as WTOP’s space reporter, and I am waiting to see if I make the next step to go to THE MOON as a dearMoon crew member. If selected I will be reporting live from our SpaceX Starship during the trip to circle the moon and return to Earth.

Get your COVID-19 vaccination, wear a mask (or masks), wash hands and social distance. Let’s beat the virus, DMV!

Follow my daily blog to keep up with the latest news in astronomy and space exploration. You can email me at

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