Sky Notes March 2015

Sky Notes for March 2015                              Geoff Mitchell

The March night sky now heralds the spring constellations as we head towards the vernal equinox on March 20th.  The bright planet Jupiter is well placed high in the south east by mid evening.  The spring night sky contains many fine objects to view with both binocular and small telescopes and this month has a few notable events of special interest*.

There is also a Partial Solar Eclipse visible from UK on March 20th  with typically 86 % of the Sun covered at mid eclipse 09:32 GMT  as seen from London increasing to 97% seen from Stornaway , the eclipse is Total for the Faroe Is . Warning DO NOT look at the Sun either with the unaided eye or any optical aid, use  only the safe eclipse viewers and projection methods outlined  in SPA leaflet `How to observe an eclipse safely , see  links to the SPA and notes for details.  See also stargazing LIVE programme on the day.

The Milky Way stretches from the constellation of  Auriga , marked by the bright star Capella in the east up into Perseus  and through the `W` shaped constellation of Cassiopeia high overhead and down along the cross shaped constellation of Cygnus  low in the west . This faint band of stars best seen on dark moonless evenings

Comet Lovejoy remains a binocular / telescopic object in Cassiopeia throughout March, see finder chart.

In the north Ursa Major, The Plough or The Great Bear is seen low with its handle or tail pointing to the horizon mid evening. Use the right hand pair of stars Dubhe and Merak (The pointers) to find the faint pole star Polaris and the position of North.

Look to the west early evening to see the brilliant planet Venus shining brightly. Telescopes shows Venus has phases (like our Moon). Over the coming months Venus phase reduces as it heads towards greatest elongation in June.

Also in the south west, the seven sisters’ (Pleiades, M45) star cluster and constellation Taurus .The Hyades star cluster makes the characteristic `V` shaped asterism in the constellation of Taurus and is noted for the bright, red foreground star Aldebaren in Arabic Al Dabaran is `The follower ` of the Pleiades across the skies, in old English colloquially known as `the eye of the bull`. On March 24th the Crescent Moon lies just below the Hyades.

By early evening the familiar winter constellations of Orion (The Hunter) is now slipping into the western skies making way for the spring constellations rising in the east

Jupiter moves from the constellation of Cancer (The Crab) towards Leo and the bright star Regulus and is past opposition on  but is well placed for observing / imaging this month. Small telescopes show the four bright moons discovered by Galileo in 1610 and the famous cloud belts. The Great Red Spot is currently more subtle and straw coloured.  Jupiter’s Galilean moons show shadow transits and go into eclipse behind the planet and with the current favourable orbital plane alignment which occurs every six years some moons can eclipse each other as seen from Earth.  A 21cm aperture or larger telescope is recommended to see the tiny dark shadow disks of the Galilean moons cast onto the cloud tops of Jupiter turbulent atmosphere.

The spring constellation of Leo rises by mid evening, the brightest star Regulus and the `reversed question mark ` shaped star asterism of `The Sickle` makes this an easily recognisable constellation. Leo stretches eastward and is marked at the tail end by the star Denebola.  Leo contains some moderately bright galaxy pairs visible in moderate sized telescopes on moonless evenings.  M65/M66 and NGC 3628 form the famous galaxy triplet, all three galaxies being visible in the same telescopic field of view.

This is a prelude to the galaxy rich spring skies visible in the coming months as the constellations of Virgo and Coma Berenices can now be seen rising by late evening. The Virgo cluster of Galaxies has many relatively bright galaxies visible in moderate sized telescopes on moonless clear evenings   March 20th (the equinox)  has equal day and night,  the Sun now crosses north of the celestial equator , Spring  in the northern hemisphere has begun.  Note that UK clocks change to BST (add 1 hour) on March 29th.

Planets in March

Mercury is at low in morning twilight but is poorly place and returns to daytime skies late March.

Venus shines brightly and is positioned low in south west after sunset visible in evening twilight.  Venus and the crescent Moon are a nice view on March 21st.

Mars is just visible very low in the west early evening in March.  Mars and the Moon are in close on March 22nd

Jupiter shines brightly in the south east on the border of Leo / Cancer (The Crab) early evening and is at  now passed opposition but offers some good views in March  (Public open evenings planned for March 17th and 19th)

Saturn now rises by midnight during March and will be positioned low in spring / summer skies.

Uranus is positioned 5 arc min away from Venus on March 4th

Neptune sets with the Sun in March and is then in our daytime skies – best seen in autumn skies


Moons phases in March

New Moon         Mar 20th              Moonless, best time for deep sky observing. (Solar eclipse)

First Quarter      Mar 27th             Best days to see shadow details in lunar craters (early evening)

Full Moon            Mar 5th                  Best days to see bright ray craters like Copernicus / Tycho.

 Last Quarter      Mar 13th              Moon visible in daytime skies.  Do not look directly at the Sun.

Meteor shower’s                            Virginids show some slow meteors with long trails, peaking during April

The highlights of the month

Partial Solar Eclipse on the morning of March 20th See SPA leaflet `How to observe an eclipse safely`

Venus and Mars conjunction with crescent moon March 21st /22nd

March skies, Milky Way visible high overhead on moonless evenings in darker skies.

Jupiter dominates our evening skies, cloud belts and four of Jupiter’s moons visible in a small telescope.

Double cluster, on the Perseus /Cassiopeia border high overhead, nice pair of star clusters.

Pleiades (Seven Sister’s) star cluster (M45) now low in south west, best seen with binoculars.

Beehive cluster (M44) visible to the unaided eye but best seen with binoculars.

Comet 2014 Q2 Lovejoy still visible in binocular s / telescopes (see notes).

Telescopic triplet of galaxies M65/M66/NGC3628 in the constellation of Leo


More detailed sky notes and LAS Newsletters, Finder charts are available to LAS members via the Members` page on the LAS Website


Partial Solar Eclipse

March 20th, from Luton the Moon covers 88% of the Suns disk at maximum at 09:31 GMT.

As the partial eclipse progresses the ambient light level will drop sharply around time of maximum eclipse, look for shadow effects on the ground and buildings and also note the effect on local wildlife, birds etc.

Warning DO NOT look at the Sun either with the unaided eye or any optical aid, use  only the safe eclipse viewers and projection methods outlined  in SPA leaflet `How to observe an eclipse safely , see  links to the SPA for details.  See also the BBC stargazing LIVE programme on the day.

Comet 2014 Q2 (Lovejoy)

.. is moving northward through the constellation of Cassiopeia. It remains a good binocular / telescopic object looking like round `fuzzy` patch possibly with a short tail visible in darker skies and before moonrise or on moon less evenings – refer to the home page for details of forthcoming public open observatory evening(s) and updates.

Comet Lovejoy Finder Chart

Comet Lovejoy Finder Chart






More detailed finder charts and newsletters are available to LAS members on the member’s page.