Special thanks to Ninian Boyle astronomyknowhow.com for information in parts of this guide.
March brings us some wonderful sights to see in the night skies for those who are armed with binoculars, telescopes or just their eyes.
The brightest object in the night sky this month (apart from the Moon) is the Planet Venus. Venus and mighty Jupiter have already been providing a treat n the western skies for naked eye observers, but by the middle of the month the two planets will inch even closer. There are other planetary conjunctions this month as well.
The stars of spring are starting to become more prominent and the mighty constellation of Orion sets earlier in the west as the nights roll on. The constellations of Leo, Coma Berenices and Virgo herald the region of the sky known as the “Realm of the Galaxies” more so as the month moves on.
We have Comet Garradd visible all night long through binoculars, as it starts to fade from 7th to 8th magnitude. You can find it near the north celestial North pole near the star Kochab or Beta Ursa Minoris (The little Bear) on the 6th, and the star Dubhe in the Plough on the 21st. Scan this region with binoculars and you should pick it up as a faint misty patch of light.
The Sun continues to become more active as it approaches “Solar Maximum” in 2013 and this is a time when we need to be on our guard for sudden bursts of activity which can result in aurora for observers in high latitudes. Some large geomagnetic storms in the past have resulted in Aurora being spotted as far south as regions near the Caribbean and Mediterranean. Will we get a show like this soon?
There are going to be some excellent conjunctions this month, as planets and even sometimes the Moon are close together and appear in the same region of the sky.
Mercury. Keep an eye out for the tiny planet Mercury. This planet (closest one to the Sun) is notoriously difficult to see. The best time to try and catch it is on the 4th, low down near the western horizon shortly after sunset. Make sure the Sun has fully set if you plan to sweep the area with binoculars. Never ever look at the sun directly with binoculars, telescopes or your naked eyes – This will damage your eyes or permanently blind you!
Mars reaches what we call ‘opposition’ on the 3rd, when it is directly opposite the Sun in the sky from our point of view here on Earth. This is the best time to view the “Red Planet” with a telescope. Try and see if you can spot its ice caps and dark markings. It will need a clear steady sky and a good magnification to see these well, try different coloured filters and even have a go at webcam imaging this amazing Planet. On the 7th the nearly full Moon lies 10-degrees to the south of the planet Mars. You’ll know its Mars by its distinct orange/pink colour.
Venus & Jupiter bring us the highlight of the month when they appear to be very close to each other and are just separated by 3 degrees on the 15th of March. The brightest out of the pair will be Venus with Jupiter below it and the pair will be an amazing sight – like a pair of heavenly eyes staring down at us. The two planets will be close to each other either side of the 15th, so there should be plenty of picture-taking opportunities. The Moon joins the Venus and Jupiter on the 25th and 26th and the thin crescent Moon will make the show even more stunning.
Saturn rises later in the evenings in the constellation of Virgo, the rings are now nicely tilted towards us and the planet looks stunning right throughout the month. If you have never seen Saturn through a telescope before, you must see it! It is the most beautiful of all the planets and one of the reasons so many people get interested in astronomy.
In March Orion is getting lower in the West and setting earlier as the spring constellations of Leo, Coma Berenices and Virgo come into view; this is the “Realm of the Galaxies.”
In the month of March the Earth’s orbit around the Sun means that during the night we see out from our own galaxy the ‘Milky Way’ into the depths of deep space. Because of this, we can see many other galaxies and some similar to our own, each contains hundreds of billions of stars. You will need a good telescope to see these amazing wonders; however a good pair of binoculars will show one or two faint fuzzy patches. Some of these faint fuzzy objects are many millions of light years distant.
A few brighter examples lay in the constellation of Leo the Lion. Have a look for M 95, M96 and M105; these are not far from Mars during March. You will need a dark Moonless night to see them well.
Another trio of galaxies still in the constellation of Leo are M65, M66 and NGC 3628 otherwise known as the ‘Leo Triplet’ A small telescope and a low to medium power should show these objects in the same field of view.
The region of sky within Leo, Coma and Virgo is packed with galaxies and whatever telescope you use, you will be sure to spot something.
For those of you without a telescope, see if you can discern the asterism of the ‘Bowl of Virgo’. This is a chain of five stars in a loose semi-circle pointing towards the ‘tail’ of Leo. The brightest star in the chain is Porrima. South of Porrima lays the brightest star in the constellation, called Spica. Saturn can be found to the east of this.