Look to the sky this March for stars, planetary conjunctions and more!

This March gives sky watchers lot’s to look for including the planetary conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. More on that shortly. But first, a reminder that there’s another period of observation for GLOBE at Night in 2012 between the 13th and 22nd March.

The GLOBE at Night campaign is an international citizen science effort to count the stars overhead and use the information to lobby for less wasteful lighting of our communities.

Why not get involved – you’ll find all the resources you need on the GLOBE at Night website?

GLOBE at Night Postcard 2012 (.pdf opens in new window)

 

The Moon Phases

The Moon

The Moon. Image: NASA

The phase of the Moon might determine whether you choose to look for stars, or if you have binoculars or a telescope, the lunar surface. A Full Moon reflects a lot of light which means you’ll be able to see fewer stars, but perhaps get a better view of craters and other features of the Moon.

First Quarter: 1st March, 01:21
Full Moon: 8th March, 09:39
Last Quarter: 15th March, 01:25
New Moon: 22nd March, 14:37
First Quarter: 30th March, 19:41

(times above are in Universal Time, UT)

 

The Planets

Solar System

The Solar System

Mercury is a tricky one to find, but you might just catch a glimpse of the inner-most planet just as the Sun is setting. It will be low to the Western horizon (i.e. difficult to see in built-up areas) and remember: never look directly at the Sun as doing so can permanently damage your eyes.

Venus and Jupiter provide one of the highlights of the month – a planetary conjunction around 15th March. The two planets appear to dance towards one another in the SouthWest as the month progresses and on the 15th they almost go head to head from our point of view on Earth. This will be quite a sight as both planets appear brightly in the early evening sky – just like a pair of eyes. For the rest of the month Venus moves away from Jupiter to hang there a little bit longer into the evening.

Venus and Jupiter in conjunction.

Venus and Jupiter in conjunction around 15th March 2012 as Mercury sets on the Horizon. Made using Stellarium.

Mars, The Red Planet, rises in the East in the early evening as the Sun sets, and you’ll easily be able to tell what it is from its orange hue which is visible through the night till the small hours of the morning. It reaches opposition on 3rd March – giving planet-watchers the prospect of a great view of it as the Earth will lie directly between it and the Sun showing us the fully illuminated face of the second closest planet to us.

Saturn starts to rise in the East just before midnight and can be seen through the night. So if it’s clear there’s a good chance you could see all five visible planets before midnight!

The outermost planets Uranus and Neptune aren’t visible to the naked eye. You’ll need a telescope to see them at the best of times, and this really isn’t, the best of times. Both are close to the Sun in our sky and therefore setting around the same time for most of the month. You definately don’t want to look towards the Sun as you risk permanent eye damage!

 

The Hunt for Exo-planets

Last month, astronomers confirmed they’d found water on an exo-planet called GJ 1214b – a so called “Super Earth” that is smaller in size than Jupiter but bigger than Earth. It orbits closer to its star than Earth does to the Sun but observations seem to show there’s probably more water in its atmosphere and surface than there is here.

Think you could spot the tell-tale signs of an exoplanet? Take part in a citizen science project called Planet Hunters and help find new worlds around other stars!

 

Find Your Way Around The Night Sky

Here are some images of what the sky will look like around Midnight on 22nd March 2012… the night of a New Moon (click to embiggen)!

Looking East around midnight on 22nd March 2012

Looking East from Glasgow around midnght on 22nd March 2012.

Looking East from Glasgow around midnght on 22nd March 2012.

Looking South around midnight on 22nd March 2012

Looking South from Glasgow around midnight 22nd March 2012

Looking South from Glasgow around midnight 22nd March 2012.

Looking West around midnight on 22nd March 2012

Looking West from Glasgow around midnight 22nd March 2012.

Looking West from Glasgow around midnight 22nd March 2012.

Looking North around midnight on 22nd March 2012

Looking North from Glasgow around midnight 22nd March 2012.

Looking North from Glasgow around midnight 22nd March 2012.

 

Constellations

This month’s featured constellation is Leo. As one of the signs of the zodiac, this constellation is centered along the ecliptic plane – the perceived line of travel of the Sun, planets and moons of our solar system from our view from Earth.

Constellation of Leo (animated)

Constellation of Leo (click to embiggen and animate)

Leo (the Latin for ‘lion’) lies between other zodiacal constellations of Cancer to the West and Virgo to the East.

The brightest star in Leo is Regulus which forms the handle of the asterism known as ‘the Sickle’. Other stars forming this familiar pattern of stars (the head and mane of the lion – that looks a bit like a backwards question mark) include Al Jabbah, and Algieba, together with the fainter stars Adhafera, Ras Elased Borealis, and Ras Elased Australis.

Regulus, the ‘king star’, is one of the brightest stars in our sky and lies around 77 light years away from the solar system. Although you can’t discern it with the naked eye, Regulus is a multiple star system (like many stars) that comprises four stars – organised into two pairs – that orbit around their common centre of mass.

The ‘Leo Triplet’ is comprised of at least 3 galaxies including M65, M66 and NGC3628. They lie under the hind of the lion, beneath a star called Chertan. These spiral galaxies are around 35 million light years away. The Very Large Telescope Survey Telescope (VST) captures these incredible interacting galaxies in the image below. On the left side of the image is NGC 3628, whilst to the right are the Messier objects M65 (upper right) and M66 (lower right).

VST’s view of the Leo Triplet and beyond. Image credit: ESO/INAF-VST/OmegaCAM. Acknowledgement: OmegaCen/Astro-WISE/Kapteyn Institute

VST’s view of the Leo Triplet and beyond. Image credit: ESO/INAF-VST/OmegaCAM. Acknowledgement: OmegaCen/Astro-WISE/Kapteyn Institute

The Leonids appear to radiate from this constellation each year around mid-November. The meteors are small remnants of the comet Tempel-Tuttle. The Earth passes through this debris trail every year on its journey around the Sun.

 

It’s a great time of year to spot things in the night time sky – here are some of my favourite things to look for over these chilly months.

 

*Updated 8th March 2012

Following a giant solar storm, there’s a real chance of disruption to tele-communication and power networks and also great opportunity to see aurora if the clouds part. The futher north you are the better if you want to catch a glimpse of those dancing polar lights.

No sign of the aurora in Glasgow tonight, but the sky looked fab around 19:00 UT with Venus and Jupiter appearing closer as they edge towards conjunction on 15th March 2012.

Venus and Jupiter in the early evening Glasgow sky on 8th March 2012

Venus and Jupiter in the early evening Glasgow sky on 8th March 2012 Image: Derek Shirlaw

 

*Updated 22nd March 2012

The weather has been fantastic this past week in Scotland, giving some great opportunity to see Venus and Jupiter. Here they are on 22nd March:

Venus and Jupiter from Glasgow on 22nd March 2012

Venus (brightest point of light) and Jupiter from Glasgow on 22nd March 2012.

About Derek Shirlaw

I'm passionate about science communication, social media, and my home country, Scotland. In particular, I have a real interest in astronomy, digital marketing, and the great outdoors.
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  1. Pingback: Derek Shirlaw » Best view of the planet Mars this year as it reaches opposition

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