The Night Sky This Month: March 2019

Straight Wall on Moon
The Straight Wall, one of the most spectacular features on the Moon.

Those living the northern hemisphere will no doubt be looking forward to the end of winter and the official start of spring which is just weeks away. On March 20th at 21:58 UTC, the Vernal Equinox (spring equinox) will subsequently herald the start of spring in the northern hemisphere. And the beginning of autumn in the southern hemisphere.

At this time of the year, there are a number of prominent constellations visible in the southern night sky. These include Taurus, Auriga, Gemini, Leo, and Ursa Major. All of these constellations offer amateur observers a wealth of easy targets for viewing with small telescopes and even binoculars.

Moon

Favourable illumination on the night of March 14th and again on the 28th offers lunar observers two excellent opportunities to view the Straight Wall (Rupes Recta). This feature is arguably the biggest misnomer on the Moon. Sir Patrick Moore once commented that it is neither straight, nor a wall. It is in fact a very gently slope that assumes the appearance of a precipitous cliff only because of the illumination that falls on it. Nonetheless, the best views can be had two days after the First Quarter Moon. Or two days before the Third Quarter Moon.

Moon Phases In March 2019

New Moon First Quarter Full Moon Last Quarter
March 6th March 14th March 21st March 28th

The Full Moon that occurs on the 21st of March occurs at 01:43 UTC. Also note that this Full Moon will be a super moon, the last of the three super moons for 2019.

Planets In March 2019

– Mercury was at its furthest point east of the Sun on the 26th of February. Its angular diameter will subsequently increase from 7.7 seconds of arc to about 10.9 seconds of arc during the month. However, the little planet will become lost in the Sun’s glare by the 6th of March. This is because it is now approaching a point of inferior conjunction with the Sun, a point it will reach by the 15th of March. 

– Venus starts the month with a magnitude of -4.1. However, its angular diameter will reduce from 16 seconds of arc to 13 second of arc, while its illumination will increase from 72% to 81%. This means that even though Venus is now receding from us, its brightness will dip only slightly to magnitude -3.9. Venus rises about 2 hours before dawn at the start of March. But the planet will not rise above 7 degrees over the horizon since it is now approaching a point of superior conjunction with the Sun. It will reach this point in August.

– Mars is now moving north-eastwards towards the constellation Taurus, which it will enter on the night of the 23rd/24th of March. Mars’ brightness will decrease from magnitude +1.2 to +1.4 and its angular diameter reduces to 4.7 seconds of arc from 5.3 seconds of arc. However, it will be at an elevation of about 37 degrees above the horizon, making it easy to spot. Look for Mars below and slightly to the leftward of the Pleiades from the 26th to the 31st of the month.

– Jupiter rises at about 2 AM UTC. Throughout the month, its brightness will increases from magnitude -2.0 to -2.3, and its angular diameter increases from 36.2 seconds of arc to 39.7 seconds of arc. Nevertheless, the planet will be less than 15 degrees above the horizon when it is due south. This could make it difficult to obtain clear views. Using an atmospheric dispersion corrector should improve images of the King of the planets. Jupiter is currently in the southern reaches of the constellation Ophiuchus.  

– Saturn starts the month rising about 2.5 hours before dawn, and about 2 hours after Jupiter. Saturn is relatively bright at magnitude +0.6. However, it is now at its lowest point on the ecliptic. It will therefore not elevate above 10 degrees or so above the southern horizon by month’s end. So the use of an atmospheric dispersion corrector is recommended to obtain clear images of the ring system. 

Deep-Sky Objects to Look For In March 2019

Below are details of a few deep-sky objects found in some of the constellations most easy to spot in the March night sky:

M35 and NGC 2158 

M35 and NGC 2158 are located in the constellation Gemini, close to the foot of the upper right “twin”. This pair of open clusters is an easy target for binoculars under dark skies. The cluster (M35) in the upper left corner of the frame is composed of several hundred stars, about a hundred or so of which are brighter than 13th magnitude.

The smaller cluster (NGC 2158) in the bottom right of the frame is about four times further away than M35, and is also at least ten times older. This means that this cluster is comprised mainly of stars that are similar in age to our Sun. Telescopes with apertures of 8 inches or larger are required to resolve individual stars in the smaller cluster.  

Galaxies M95 and M96

This pair of spiral galaxies are located in the constellation Leo, about mid-way between the stars Upsilon and Iota Leonis. M95 is located about 38 million light years away. Meanwhile, M96, a type Sa spiral galaxy, is slight further away, being located about 41 million light years distant. Both galaxies are members of the Leo I Group of galaxies. They can subsequently be viewed together in a small telescope at low magnifications.

Giant Elliptical Galaxy M87

The upper right part of the constellation Virgo contains the centre, or core of the Virgo Group of galaxies. All 13 of these galaxies can be viewed with a modest amateur telescope. The most luminous of this group of galaxies is M87 (shown above). Although it is not the biggest or most massive galaxy in the Virgo Group, it is certainly among the most active. This can be seen from the long jet of particles and energy that is being expelled by a giant black hole at the core of the galaxy at near-light speeds.  

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