| Feb 28, 2008

Night Skies - March, 2008.class { BORDER-RIGHT: black 1pt solid; BORDER-TOP: #000 1pt solid; BORDER-LEFT: black 1pt solid; BORDER-BOTTOM: black 1pt solid } .class1 { BORDER-RIGHT: #9f5128 1pt solid; BORDER-TOP: #9f5128 1pt solid; BORDER-LEFT: #9f5128 1pt solid; BORDER-BOTTOM: #9f5128 1pt solid } .class2 { FONT-SIZE: 8pt; COLOR: #666 }

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Night Skies - March, 2008 A March feast of five planets by Leo Enright In this area, at the beginning of March, the sun sets a few minutes before 6:00 p.m. EST, and by the end of the month it is at about 6:30 p.m. During the month the end of evening twilight moves from 7:30 p.m. to about 8:10 p.m.

During every clear evening of the month, even before the end of twilight, we can see the very bright and now-familiar stars of the winter constellations. They include, of course, Orion the Great Hunter – the most distinctive of the winter constellations – with his “3-starred belt” and four brilliant stars to mark his shoulders and knees, and following him, his faithful dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor, whose shining eyes are marked by two of the sky’s brightest stars, Sirius and Procyon. Well above Orion’s head we see the outline of the Heavenly Twins, Castor and Pollux, standing side by side. Moving up into the eastern sky during evening twilight, we should notice the first of the large springtime constellations, Leo the Lion. Its starry outline resembles two things: firstly a “backwards question mark” indicating the head and front paws of the giant feline, and, secondly, a large triangle of stars marking its hindquarters. At the foot of the backwards question mark is the star Regulus, known as the “Kingly Star” to our ancient ancestors, the brightest object in that part of the sky, unless the moon or a planet is nearby.

The old saying about the month of March is actually astronomical: “In like a lion; out like a lamb!” meaning that, as Leo the Lion enters the eastern evening sky, Aries the Lamb is leaving the western evening sky.

Among the five bright planets, all of them may be seen this month – two in the night sky and three in the morning sky. The first one to be noticed in the evening will likely be reddish Mars, very high in the southeast and well above and to the left from the “head of Orion”. This month Mars is actually moving away from the bright stars of the constellation Taurus the Bull and closer to Castor and Pollux and the other stars of the constellation Gemini. Careful observers will notice that its brightness fades slightly over the month, because the Earth-Mars distance is increasing, and if they observe it in a small telescope, they will easily see that it appears smaller than it did a few months ago. If they do so between March 7 and 14, they will notice that it appears just north of a rich cluster of stars called M35, a cluster that is actually thousands of times more distant than the planet. The second planet that may be seen in the evening is Saturn which appears among the stars of the constellation Leo the Lion, and just below the very bright star Regulus, as it rises in the east. Saturn and Regulus may be seen moving together across the sky during the entire night and setting in the west at about the time of sunrise. Although Saturn fades slightly over the month, it is so slight that even the most careful observer may not be able to notice it. What (s)he will likely notice is that Saturn appears to move closer to the star Regulus, and if it is observed with a small telescope, its ring system and one or more of its many moons may be easily seen.

The third planet, Jupiter, the King of the Planets, is the first planet to be seen in the early morning eastern sky. It rises about two hours before sunrise, with the bright stars of the constellation Sagittarius just to its right. Observers who direct their small telescopes to Jupiter during morning twilight this month will easily see the changing patterns of its four largest and brightest moons, but if they do so on March 31, they must remember that what appears as a “fifth moon” on that date is really a distant star in the constellation Sagittarius.

Lastly, the two “inner planets” (those inside the Earth’s orbit) are to be seen this month very low in the eastern sky in the 45 minutes before sunrise – well down and to the left from Jupiter. Whether or not they are seen will depend on the observer’s eastern horizon during the first half of the month. A perfectly unobstructed view will reveal a glorious “dance of these two planetary gems”, but if trees or buildings obstruct the view, it will be lost. Venus is much brighter than Mercury. Just as these two were very close in the last week of February, they will remain so for over a week in early March. Binoculars may be helpful in finding them in the glow of morning twilight, but do remember to put aside the binoculars before sunrise to avoid the risk of directing them toward the rising sun and suffering eye damage.

The most spectacular planetary sight of the month will be for those who have a great eastern horizon on the morning of March 3 and can observe the very close pairing of brilliant Venus, just below and to the left of Mercury, with the extremely thin crescent Moon very close to Mercury. All three will easily fit in the field of ordinary binoculars. Certainly one of the astronomical sights of the season!! One that is not to be missed! Unfortunately for people living in North America, the view of Venus and Mercury will not be possible after the Ides of March (the old name for the middle date of a lunar month, the 15th, of course.) For those living in the southern hemisphere the view of this duo will continue for the remainder of the month.

There are several other Moon-Planet conjunctions that are well worth viewing this month. On the mornings of March 2 and 3, the crescent moon appears near the planet Jupiter in the eastern twilight. On the night of March 14 the First Quarter Moon appears very close to Mars. In the evening sky of March 18, the bright gibbous moon appears above Jupiter and Saturn and the following evening, March 19, it is seen below them. On the mornings of March 30 and 31, try to observe the crescent moon low in the eastern sky near the planet Jupiter, in almost exactly the same configuration that these two objects had on the mornings of March 2 and 3. It is a true lesson on the orbit of the moon around the earth during one ‘lunar month’. It would be interesting to hear from readers who can make drawings or sketches of the moon, Jupiter, and nearby stars in the eastern dawn sky on the morning of March 2 and March 30 or March 3 and March 31, or on all four mornings.

As always we have the event known as the Equinox occurring in March, the date and time at which the sun appears directly above the equator. This year the precise time is 49 minutes after midnight on March 20. The Full Moon of the month is the next day, Friday, March 21. The date of Easter, for many centuries, has been set by the rule: “It will be on the first Sunday following the first Full Moon after the Vernal Equinox.” Easter 2008, occurring on Sunday, March 23 is extremely close to the earliest date possible. (It might have been one date earlier, if March 22 had come on a Sunday). In very few years is Easter as early as it is in 2008!

More information about the night sky and about observing is to be found in the book, The Beginner’s Observing Guide, now available at Sharbot Lake Pharmacy. Enjoy the wonders of the heavens, and I wish all readers a Safe and Happy Easter Season!

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