Highlights of the March Night Sky
By Bob Haskins
Do your part and help preserve the dark skies that we are fortunate to have
in Waterville Estates. Turn off all unnecessary outdoor lighting
Go outside tonight and discover the night sky
The Planets: Evenings on the “Ecliptic” The Sun and the planets all follow an imaginary path in the sky called the ecliptic.
This month, as was February, is not the best month to spot the planets in the night-time sky.
Mars can be located in SW halfway up in the night-time sky an hour after sunset.
Venus, Saturn and Jupiter line up from left to right (SSE to SE) on the ecliptic. Venus is the brightest of the three planets at magnitude -3.9.
Stars and Constellations
The bright constellations of winter are burning brightly in the west this month. Orion “The Hunter” still dominates our winter sky. It is the easiest constellation to find. The “Belt” is the straight line of three stars in the middle of the constellation and is as wide as your three fingers at arms length. Each star in the belt lies at a different distance from us; from left to right (800 light years, 1340ly and 915ly). Look through your binoculars to really appreciate the beauty of the belt formation. Also look to the left for Orion’s faithful companion the constellation “Canis Major” (Big Dog). However, rising in the east after dark is Arcturus, the bright star of summer. The seasons are always changing.
Spring arrives on March 20th for us in the northern hemisphere. The vernal equinox marks the day that our planet starts to lean into the Sun and for us in the north each day thereafter we feel more of the Sun’s rays warming our planet. On March 21nd the Sun will set exactly in the west and it will be directly overhead at noon at the equator. However, before we leave the winter behind see if you can locate the Gemini twins in the night sky this month. Look below and to the left of Orion for the bright star Sirius in the “big dog” and than look up and you should spot two bright stars a thumbs width apart at arms length. These are the heads of the twins, Castor and Pollux. If you are in the Estates you should be able to trace out their stick figure body outlines (refer to diagram). Between the Gemini twins and Sirius you should spot the lone bright star Procyon. This is part of the constellation Canis Minor or little dog.
A Japanese spacecraft last month made a successful landing on asteroid Ryugu which is located 300 million kilometers from Earth. This is the first time anyone has landed a spacecraft on an asteroid. The Hayabusa 2 probe fired a bullet into the asteroid, the first of three in order to stir up the surface matter, which it collected and will be analyzed back on Earth. The leader of the mission said “this will lead to new discoveries in planetary science”. The asteroid is thought to contain large amounts of organic matter and water from some 4.6 billion years ago. The spacecraft is scheduled to return to Earth in 2020 after a journey of more than three billion miles.
Comment / Factoid of the Month
If the Sun was a grain of sand. And the Earth a microscopic speck one inch away, then Jupiter would lie 5.2 inches away and Pluto 40 inches away. Next stop out nearest star, about 4.3 miles away, with mostly empty space between it and the Sun. The star Vega would be 26 miles away, Orion 1,340 miles away. Even on this massively compressed scale, the diameter of the Milky Way Galaxy, our home, would be 100,000 miles across.
Astronomy Websites to Explore
- heavens-above.com (satellites that are passing overhead and also Iridium Flares)
- com (The evening sky map for the month)
- nasa.gov (sign up for alerts for the International Space Station)