Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


The Night Sky of March

Dr. Wayne Wooten
Professor of Astronomy

For March 2010, the Moon will be a waning gibbous as the month begins; the Lenten Full Moon was on February 28th. The waning gibbous moon passes just 5 degrees south of Saturn on March 2nd. Last quarter moon sits high in the sky and half-lit at sunrise on March 7th. We spring forward to Daylight Savings Time on Sunday, March 14th.

The new moon falls on March 15th. The waxing crescent moon lies just below and to the right of Venus in twilight on March 16th, and will be just above Venus on March 17th. The Vernal Equinox occurs at 12:33 PM on March 20th. The first quarter moon is high overhead at sunset on March 23rd . The waxing gibbous moon passes four degrees south of rapidly fading orange Mars on March 25th. The waxing gibbous moon passes again passes five degrees south of Saturn on March 28th.

Venus dominates the western evening sky, growing higher in the sky each successive evening. Her disk is almost completely sunlit and tiny in the telescope as she is still on the far side of the Sun. Orange Mars is still bright in the NE at sunset, but fading fast, having been lapped by the Sun in late January at opposition. On March 22nd, we pass between Saturn and the Sun, so Saturn will rise in the east in Virgo, coming up at sunset and staying up all night. As we are then closest to the ringed wonder, this is the best time to observe the most beautiful object in the sky. When viewed with a telescope, the rings will be even open than last year, tilted about 11 degrees toward the Earth and Sun this year. Small scopes will also show its largest moon Titan.

The constellation Cassiopeia makes a striking W in the NW. South of Cassiopeia is Andromeda's hero, Perseus. Between him and Cassiopeia is the fine Double Cluster, faintly visible with the naked eye and two fine binocular objects in the same field. Perseus contains the famed eclipsing binary star Algol, where the Arabs imagined the eye of the gorgon Medusa would lie. It fades to a third its normal brightness for six out of every 70 hours, as a larger but cooler orange giant covers about 80% of the smaller but hotter and thus brighter companion as seen from Earth.

At Perseus' feet for the famed Pleiades cluster; they lie about 400 light years distant, and over 250 stars are members of this fine group. East of the seven sisters is the V of stars marking the face of Taurus the Bull, with bright orange Aldebaran as his eye. The V of stars is the Hyades cluster, older than the blue Pleiades, but about half their distance. Yellow Capella, a giant star the same temperature and color as our much smaller Sun, dominates the overhead sky in the northwest. It is part of the pentagon on stars making up Auriga, the Charioteer (think Ben Hur).

Several nice binocular Messier open clusters are found in the winter milky way here. East of Auriga, the twins, Castor and Pollux highlight the Gemini; it is directly above us as darkness falls in early March. UWF alumni can associate the pair with Jason and the Golden Fleece legend, for they were the first two Argonauts to sign up on his crew of adventurers..

South of Gemini, Orion is the most familiar winter constellation, dominating the southern sky at dusk. The reddish supergiant Betelguese marks his eastern shoulder, while blue-white supergiant Rigel stands opposite on his west knee. Just south of the belt, hanging like a sword downward, is M-42, the Great Nebula of Orion, an outstanding binocular and telescopic stellar nursery. The bright diamond of four stars that light it up are the trapezium cluster, one of the finest sights in a telescope.

In the east are the hunter's two faithful companions, Canis major and minor. Procyon is the bright star in the little dog, and rises minutes before Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Sirius dominates the SE sky as darkness falls. At 8 light years distance, Sirius is the closest star we can easily see with the naked eye.

When Sirius is highest, along our southern horizon look for the second brightest star, Canopus, getting just above the horizon and sparkling like an exquisite diamond as the turbulent winter air twists and turns this shaft of starlight, after a trip of about 200 years!

To the northeast, look for the bowl of the Big Dipper rising, with the top two stars, the pointers, giving you a line to find Polaris, the Pole Star. Look for Mizar-Alcor, a nice naked eye double star, in the bend of the big dipper's handle, rising by 7 PM at the start of March.

March comes in like a Lion, as Leo rises . If you take the pointers south, you are guided instead to the head of Leo the Lion rising in the east, looking much like the profile of the famed Sphinx. The bright star at the Lion's heart is Regulus, the "regal star". Our photo highlight is the trio of galaxies, M65 (top left), M-66 (bottom left) and NGC 3628 (to right) the cluster lies below the lion's hindquarters, with the two Messier galaxies visible in binoculars.

If you follow the handle of the Big Dipper to the south, by 9 PM you will be able to "arc to Arcturus", the brightest star of Spring and distinctly orange in color. Compare it to Mars high overhead in brightness and color now. It is at the tail of kite shaped Bootes, the celestrial bear driver chasing the two bears from his flocks.

By 9 PM, many more galaxies will be following as the Virgo Supercluster, just below Saturn now, rises in the east. This huge cluster of over a thousand galaxies is centered about 60 million light years away. The brightest star of Virgo, Spica, lies just east of the center of the cluster, and its rise just after sunset marks the time of year for spring planting in folklore. Time to get your peas in the ground….

March goes out like a lamb, not just from Easter tradition, but because Aries the Ram is setting in the west by the end of March. Many of our sayings and traditions have astronomical origins.

Read past issues of the Sky at Night