The Night Sky This Month: March 2016

Appenine Mountain Range

Over the past few months, star-gazers have been treated to the striking winter constellations, whose main attraction is Orion, and whose entourage includes Canis Major, Canis Minor, Gemini, Auriga, and Taurus. Take time to enjoy these beautiful winter constellations in March, though, as they are close to completing their gradual journey off the western horizon, just as the spring constellations, headed by Leo, are starting to rise higher in the eastern celestial heavens.

Moon and its Phases

On March 16th, and again on the 19th, you will be able to observe the Appenine mountain range, as well as the 7-mile-wide (11.2 km), and 79-mile-long (127 km) Alpine valley that cuts across the mountain range. The large crater Plato is located close to the Alpine Valley, but the thin rille that runs almost the length of the Valley is notoriously difficult to spot in small telescopes, so you may want to use a 6” or 8” inch telescope.

New Moon: March 9th
First Quarter: March 14th
Full Moon: March 23rd
Last Quarter: March 1st & 31st

The Planets

Venus

At the start of the month, Venus will be rising approximately an hour before dawn, but it will rise progressively later as the month wears on. By month’s end, the planet will rise only 25 minutes or so before dawn, so look for it low on the east-south-eastern horizon before it moves in behind the Sun during April. Venus’s apparent magnitude will remain fairly constant at -3.8 throughout the month, due to its position relative to the Sun.

Mars

Mars continues its eastward motion relative to the stars, and at the start of the month will move into Scorpius from Leo. By the 14th, it will be in close proximity to Acrab, which forms the uppermost star of the group of stars that resemble a fan to the right of Antares. Look for Mars about 19 degrees low above the southern horizon, and as apparent magnitude brighten considerably from +0.3 to -0.1, with good seeing conditions it might just be possible to spot major features like the Northern polar ice cap, and perhaps even Syrtis Major.

Jupiter

At the beginning of March, the King of the planets will shine with an apparent magnitude of -2.5, which will marginally decrease to -2.4 as the month wears on. Even small telescopes will easily resolve Jupiter’s equatorial bands, and the Great Red Spot may also be observable if seeing conditions are good. In addition, look out for the Galilean moons, although they are hard to miss most of the time.

Saturn

Saturn starts the month in the southern reaches of the constellation Ophiuchus, where it will be located about 7 degrees to the upper northward of the star Antares, in the constellation Scorpius. Although Saturn rises at about midnight, the best time to view it is just before dawn, at about 19 degrees above the south-eastern horizon. As the month wears on, Saturn’s apparent magnitude will increase from +0.5 to +0.3, and by the end of the month the planet’s retrograde motion that starts on the 25th will have brought it to within 9 degrees of Mars.

Constellations

March brings four constellations into view, Gemini, Leo, Virgo, and Ursa Major. All four constellations have many spectacular sights; however, there are far too many to list here, so we will highlight only a few of the most interesting objects, out of a possible list of hundreds.

Gemini

Spring ConstellationsGemini, also known as The Twins, lies to the upper leftward of Orion in the south-western sky during the early the evening in March. The constellation contains the 1.9 magnitude star Castor, which is in fact a system of six stars orbiting each other in three pairs. Along with Pollux, the 1.1 magnitude star Castor is one of the brightest stars in the Gemini constellation. Gemini also contains M35, an open cluster contains several hundred stars, of which about 100 or so are brighter than 13th magnitude, making them easy to spot even with a small telescope or good quality binoculars. Larger instruments, say 6″ to 8″ telescopes, will show a smaller, densely packed cluster (NGC 2158) to the lower right of M35.

Leo

Visible in the south-eastern skies, Leo is one of the few constellations that resembles the creature it represents, with the lion’s mane and head forming The Sickle, an arrangement of stars to Leo’s upper right. Leo contains some notable stars, including Regulus, a 1.4 magnitude star located about 90 light years away, that forms the lion’s right knee. Forms the base of the lion’s neck is Algieba, a pair of beautiful golden-yellow stars that shines with an apparent magnitude of 1.9, from about 170 light years away.

Virgo

Virgo is not one of the most conspicuous constellations in the night sky, and contains just one bright star, Spica, a binary system consisting of two B-class stars orbiting each other every four days. The pair shines with a combined luminosity of at least 2,000 times that of the Sun. However, Virgo is one of the largest constellations, and offers owners of “rich-field” telescopes many rewarding sights, including a total of 13 Messier galaxies, all of which are easy targets for small telescopes.

The constellation is of course home to the Virgo Cluster of galaxies, the biggest of which is M87, a giant elliptical galaxy that is almost certain to contain a massive black hole in its core. Look out also for the Sombrero Galaxy (M104), which after Andromeda (M31) is arguably the most iconic galaxy.

Ursa Major

The Great Bear constellation’s greatest claim to fame is the fact that it contains the Big Dipper, one of the most easily recognised asterisms in the sky, or at least the northern hemisphere sky. However, Ursa Major also contains many other deep sky objects, among which are M81 and M82, two interacting galaxies that can be seen together with a small telescope at low magnifications. Ursa Major also contains two of the most beautiful galaxies in the entire sky, The Pinwheel Galaxy (M101) and The Whirlpool Galaxy (M51).