March may or may not go out like a lamb over the next few days -- it all depends on the weather. But March's night sky does go out like a sheep -- albeit a grown-up one.
Aries, the ram, is low in the west at nightfall. It's a faint pattern marked by only a couple of fairly bright stars: Hamal, its brightest, and Sheratan, its second-brightest. Look for them above or to the upper left of Venus, the "evening star," which is quite low above the horizon.
Aries is famous not because of its brilliance, though, but because of its location: it's one of the 12 constellations of the zodiac. These constellations all straddle the Sun's path across the sky, known as the ecliptic. In ancient times, that gave these regions of the sky extra significance.
Aries was the most significant of all. At the time the constellations were named, the Sun appeared against the stars of Aries at the vernal equinox -- the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. With the earth awakening from its winter slumber, the equinox was a time of celebration. And it usually marked the beginning of a new year.
Today, the Sun's location at the equinox is still known as the "first point of Aries" -- even though the Sun is in Pisces. The change is caused by a slow wobble in Earth's axis. The Sun will return to Aries -- and the ram will regain his status as the leader of the zodiacal flock -- when we complete one full wobble -- in about 22,000 years.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010
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