Sky Notes March 2016

Sky notes for March 2016                      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.  Clocks go forward at Easter (March 27th) marking the beginning of British Summer time (Daylight saving time if you use a GOTO instrument)

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

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.

Also in the south west, the seven sisters’ (Pleiades, M45) star cluster and constellation Taurus .The Hyades,  the nearest open star cluster to Earth, 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 14th the Waxing Crescent Moon lies just left the Hyades and Aldebaran

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

Follow a line drawn through the constellation of Orion, from Rigel (lower right) upward through the red super giant star Betelgeuse ( upper left)  extend this to find the two stars  Castor and Pollux in the constellation of Gemini . Gemini resembles a long rectangle with Castor and Pollux at the left hand side , the right hand end straddles the rich star fields of the Milky Way and has some notable star clusters , for example M35 visible in binoculars or  small telescopes .

Draw a line from Pollux down to Regulus in the constellation of Leo, about half way along the line you will see a misty patch with the unaided eye on dark moonless evenings. Look with binoculars and see the open star cluster M44 (the Beehive cluster) or Praesepe in the obscure inverted `Y` shaped constellation of Cancer [The Crab].

The spring constellation of Leo rises by early 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. The star Algieba in the Sickle is a nice double star with golden yellow components visible at moderate magnification in a 100mm telescope.

Jupiter positioned in the constellation of Leo rising early evening it is at its best during March. With Jupiter at   opposition on March 8th it 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 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 constellations of Virgo and Coma Berenices can now be seen rising by late evening and corresponds to a view looking out of the plane of the Milky Way galaxy to other galaxies within  the Virgo super cluster of Galaxies  of which the galaxies of our local group are distant members . 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.
Planets in March 2016

Mercury slips from the dawn skies with Superior Conjunction on March 23rd and emerges into evening twilight skies late March.

Venus shines brightly but is rather poorly placed low dawn skies.   Venus and  above the crescent Moon are a nice view  6am on March 7th

Mars is just visible very low in the east early morning in March.  Mars is now increasing in apparent diameter as opposition approaches in late May.

Jupiter shines brightly in the south east in the constellation of Leo early evening at opposition, offers some good views in March (Public open evenings for British Science Week are planned for March 15th and 17th)

Saturn now rises early morning in March and will be positioned low in spring / summer skies. From late March Saturn begins to move retrograde against the stars in Ophiuchus, opposition is June 3rd.

Uranus is now lost to evening twilight low in the west – best seen in autumn skies

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


Moons phases in March 2016

New Moon         Mar 9th                Moonless, best time for deep sky observing and galaxy hunting.

First Quarter      Mar 15th             Best days to see shadow details in lunar craters (early evening)

Full Moon            Mar 23rd              Best days to see bright ray craters like Copernicus / Tycho.

Last Quarter      Mar 1st/ 31st       Moon visible in daytime skies.  Do not look directly at the Sun.

Meteor showers                            Virginids show some slow meteors with long trails, peaking during April

The highlights of the month

March 9th , look  with binoculars  15 minutes after the  sun has completely set low in the west  to glimpse a very `thin`    waxing  (1% ) crescent moon ( just 16 hours after the Total Solar Eclipse , visible from Indonesia  ).  Also look at the thin crescent Moon on March 10th to see the Earthshine effect – the non sunlit part of the Moon seen in faint detail illuminated by reflected sunlight fro Earth.

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

Jupiter seen at its best at opposition in March, the dominates our evening skies, cloud belts and four of Jupiter’s moons visible in a small telescope and the prospects of observing some shadow transit events using larger telescopes  ( see notes )

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.

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

Looking outward from the plane of the Milky Way galaxy, the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies is now visible early evening, best explored on dark, clear moonless evenings.