WHAT'S UP THIS MONTH - MARCH 2018
(Link to What's Up February 2018)
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THESE PAGES ARE INTENDED TO HELP YOU FIND YOUR WAY AROUND THE SKY
Click HERE for a downloadable PDF white chart - (Close PDF file to return here)
The chart above shows the whole night sky as it appears on 15th March at 21:00 (9 o'clock) in the evening Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). As the Earth orbits the Sun and we look out into space each night the stars will appear to have moved across the sky by a small amount. Every month Earth moves one twelfth of its circuit around the Sun, this amounts to 30 degrees each month. There are about 30 days in each month so each night the stars appear to move about 1 degree. The sky will therefore appear the same as shown on the chart above at 10 o'clock GMT at the beginning of the month and at 8 o'clock GMT at the end of the month. The stars also appear to move 15º (360º divided by 24) each hour from east to west, due to the Earth rotating once every 24 hours. Remember - British Summer Time (BST) begins on 25th March.
The centre of the chart will be the position in the sky directly overhead, called the Zenith. First we need to find some familiar objects so we can get our bearings. The Pole Star Polaris can be easily found by first finding the familiar shape of the Great Bear ‘Ursa Major' that is also sometimes called the Plough or even the Big Dipper by the Americans. Ursa Major is visible throughout the year from Britain and is always quite easy to find. This month it is high in the north east. Look for the distinctive saucepan shape, four stars forming the bowl and three stars forming the handle. Follow an imaginary line, up from the two stars in the bowl furthest from the handle. These will point the way to Polaris which will be to the north of overhead at about 50º above the northern horizon. Polaris is the only moderately bright star in a fairly empty patch of sky. When you have found Polaris turn completely around and you will be facing south. To use this chart, position yourself looking south and hold the chart above your eyes.
Planets observable in the evening sky: Mercury, Venus and Uranus (Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in the early morning).
EXPLORING THE NIGHT SKY THIS MONTH
The Southern Night Sky during March 2018 at 21:00 GMT (9:00 pm)
The chart above shows the night sky looking south at about 20:00 GMT on 15th March. West is to the right and east to the left. The point in the sky directly overhead is known as the Zenith and is shown at the upper centre of the chart. The curved brown line across the sky at the bottom is the Ecliptic or Zodiac. This is the imaginary line along which the Sun, Moon and planets appear to move across the sky. The constellations through which the ecliptic passes are known as the constellations of the ‘Zodiac'.
Constellations through which the ecliptic passes this month are: Pisces (the Fishes), Aries (the Ram), Taurus (the Bull), Gemini (the Twins), Cancer (the Crab), Leo (the Lion) and Virgo (the Virgin) is just appearing over the eastern horizon.
The Milky Way (our Galaxy) appears to rise up from the southern horizon. It continues up through the constellations of Monoceros, Orion, Gemini, Auriga, Perseus and into Cassiopeia (just off the top right of the chart).
Our theme for this month is ‘Galaxies' and this time of year is the best time to look for galaxies. A larger telescope is required to see any of the galaxies except M31 the Great Spiral Galaxy in the constellation of Andromeda. M31 can still be seen using a smaller telescope or even a good pair of binoculars. It is in the north western sky early in the evening, see the chart at the top of this page.
There are many galaxies in the Virgo Cluster which is centred on the space between the constellations of Leo, Virgo and Coma Berenices on the left side of the chart. This time of the year is referred to as the time of the galaxies because the cluster is in view.
Orion is still dominating the evening sky and is easy to find in the south western sky. The familiar shape of Orion the Hunter is followed across the sky by his hunting dogs Sirius and Procyon.
To the north of Orion are the fairly obvious constellations of Taurus and Gemini. To the North West and sitting astride the ecliptic is the constellation of Taurus (the Bull). The Taurus asterism (shape) looks like a squashed cross ‘X'. At the centre of the cross is a large, faint and dispersed Open Cluster, the Hyades. It has the bright Red Giant star Aldebaran in the centre. The real beauty of Taurus is the naked eye Open Cluster M45 the Pleiades.
To the north of M45 (the Pleiades cluster in Taurus) is a line of stars defining the constellation of Perseus. The whole asterism (shape) of Perseus looks like a horse rider's stirrup. At the top of the line of stars is the beautiful object ‘the Double Cluster' best seen using binoculars.
Following Taurus along the ecliptic is Gemini (the Twins). The twin stars Pollux and Castor are easy to find. There is a lovely Messier Open Cluster M35 in Gemini just off the end of the line of stars emanating from the bright star Castor. Castor is a double star when seen in a telescope.
To the east of Gemini is the faint and rather indistinct constellation of Cancer (the Crab). The asterism (shape) of Cancer looks quite uninteresting but the Open Cluster Messier 44 (M44) Praesepe or the Beehive Cluster looks beautiful and like a swarm of bees around an old style straw hive when seen using binoculars. Following Cancer is Leo (the Lion) the ‘constellation of the month' this month.
CONSTELLATION OF THE MONTH – LEO (the Lion)
A chart showing the constellation of Leo (the Lion)
Leo is quite distinctive with the ‘sickle' shaped pattern of stars looking much like the head of the lion that Leo represents. In fact the traditional ‘stick figure' shape of Leo as shown on the chart above does look rather like the lion's body or the Sphinx in Egypt. The ‘sickle' is also described as looking like a backwards question mark (?).
A classical illustration of Leo (the Lion)
Leo does look unexpectedly large in the sky and may be a little difficult to find for the first time but once found it is easy to recognise and find again.
Regulus is a large blue / white star approximately 160 times brighter than our Sun and lying at a distance of 69 light years. When viewed through a small telescope a smaller companion star can be seen close by making Regulus a double star. Regulus sits virtually on the ecliptic line (the brown line shown on the chart above) . This is the imaginary line along which the Sun, Moon and planets appear to move across the sky. Leo is therefore one of the twelve constellation s of the Zodiac.
Every eighteen years Regulus is ‘occulted' by the Moon every month for a period of eighteen months. An occultation occurs when the Moon passes in front of the star so the star disappears behind the Moon. The last series of occultations occurred around 2007 and the next series will be around 2024. The Moon does however pass close to Regulus every month. It will pass close but above Regulus on the 28th March at 13:00 but the event will not be observable from the UK.
The star Algieba, located above Regulus on the ‘Sickle', is a very nice double star about 75 light years from us. The two stars orbit each other around their common centre of gravity every 620 years and have magnitudes of +2.2 and +3.5 which give them a combined magnitude of +1.98.
Spring time is regarded as the season of galaxies and Leo is on the edge of a large group of galaxies. The main group is located in the neighbouring constellations of Virgo and Coma Berenices to the east (left) of Leo. However Leo does have four lovely bright galaxies of its own, these are known as: M65, M66, M95 and M96. They are marked in yellow on the chart above just below the ‘lion'.
The galaxies on the previous chart are shown in detail below. A 100mm to 150mm aperture telescope will be required to see the faint ‘misty' outline of these galaxies. There is a third galaxy close to M65 and M66 called NGC3628 these three are known as the Leo Triplet.
The Leo Triplet M65, M66 and NGC 3628
Messier 66 is also known as NGC 3627 . It is a barred spiral galaxy about 36 million light-years away in the constellation Leo. M66 has an apparent magnitude of +8.9. It was discovered by Charles Messier in 1780. M66 is about 95 thousand light-years across with striking dust lanes and bright star clusters along sweeping spiral arms.
M66 showing the Spiral Arms at the end of a bar
Messier 65 is also known as NGC 3623 . It is a spiral galaxy about 35 million light-years away in the constellation Leo. We see it slightly tilted away from us. It was also discovered by Charles Messier in 1780.
M65 showing a dust lanes in the Spiral Arms
There is another beautiful pair of galaxies M95 and M96 further to the west (right) of M65 and M66 below Leo.
Galaxies M96 and M95 in Leo
Messier 96 is also known as M96 or NGC 3368 . It is a spiral galaxy about 31 million light-years away in the constellation Leo. M95 and M96 were discovered by Pierre Méchain in 1781 and catalogued by Charles Messier four days later.
M96 has a deformed arm (top)
Messier 95 is also known as M95 or NGC 3351 . It is a barred spiral galaxy about 38 million light-years away in the constellation Leo.
M95 is seen almost ‘face on' to us
THE SOLAR SYSTEM MARCH 2018
MERCURY will be in its best position of the year on 18th and 19th March. It will be close to the much brighter planet Venus but will still be low above the western horizon after sunset.
Mercury, Venus and Mars in the west soon after sunset
VENUS is visible in the west as the Sun sets and very bright at magnitude -3.9. The telescopic view is not very good because Venus is on the opposite side of the Sunto us and appearing small. It will become larger but narrower over the next few months as it moves towards us. It still requires a Moon filter to reduce the dazzling and sparkling effect and improve the appearance while it is low in the sky. See the chart above.
MARS will be in the south east as the Sun is rising and the sky begins to brighten. The Red Planet still appears small at 7.5 arc-seconds in diameter but has brightened to magnitude +0.6. Mars is low and in the turbulent air but is appearing to grow larger. Earth is gaining on Mars as the two planets move around their orbits. See the chart below.
Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in the south at 05:00
JUPITER is now a good morning object. It rises over the eastern horizon at about 23:00 and will be observable from midnight. A pair of binoculars will reveal the four brightest of Jupiter's moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Even a small telescope will allow the moons to be seen very clearly.
SATURN will be visible in the brightening dawn sky close to the south eastern horizon. The ringed planet rises at about 03:00 this month, this about 3 hours before the Sun. The view of Saturn will not be good this year as it will be close to the horizon. It is observable in the south east from 04:00 until the sky begins to brighten before sunrise.
URANUS will still be observable this month. It will be moving towards the south western horizon as the sky darkens and will set over the horizon at 21:00. Uranus may just be visible using a good pair of binoculars but a telescope at a magnification of 100x or higher will be needed to see it as a small blue/green disc. See the Mercury chart above.
NEPTUNE will not be visible as it has now moved over the western horizon and is too close to the Sun.
There are still occasional sunspots to see even though the active phase of the Solar Cycle is over.
The Sun rises at 06:40 at the beginning of the month and at 05:45 by the end of the month. It will be setting at 17:45 at the beginning and 18:30 at the end of the month. Sunspots and other activity on the Sun can be followed live and day to day by visiting the SOHO website at: http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/ .
THE MOON PHASES IN MARCH
There will be two Full Moons this month. The last Full Moon was on 31st January but there was no Full Moon during February. A second Full Moon in one month is sometimes referred to as a ‘Blue Moon'. It will also appear larger this month and will be the last of the so called ‘Super Moons' in the current series of Super Moons.
The Full Moon on 2nd March will be the last of a series of, so called, ‘Super Moons'. Our Moon has an elliptical orbit around Earth which means it is sometimes closer to Earth than other times. At its closest (Perigee) it is 405,410 km and 362,570 km when it is at its most distant (Apogee). Therefore its distance can vary by up to 42,840 km. The full Moon will coincide with its closest approach to Earth this month making it appear larger. It will therefore appear 14% larger than it appears when it is furthest from Earth.
A diagram showing the minimum and maximum distance to the Moon
Full Moon will be on 2nd March
Last Quarter will be on 9th March
New Moon will be on 17th March
First Quarter will be on 24th March
Full Moon will be on 31st March
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