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Eyes on the Sky - March 2011



A monthly astronomy program detailing what is new in the night sky as viewed from the Chicago, IL area. Discussion for March largely focuses on planets Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and conjunctions with the Moon, along with info on how to find the galaxies visible in the constellation Virgo and why the astronomical equinox occurs. Some times and distances are specific to the Chicago area, but most objects can still be seen within the contiguous United States with appropriate adjustments for time zone and latitude.

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Mercury and Jupiter make the year's best conjunction of brighter planets in March.
Starting on the evening of March 7, look to the west to find a thin crescent moon. Just below the moon will be Jupiter, shining brightly at magnitude -2.1. Below Jupiter and close to the horizon will be Mercury. Mercury is shining at a bright magnitude of -1.4, making it easier to spot.

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Mercury: at magnitude -1.6, starts the month in the constellation of Aquarius. Best seen from 18.0h -18.0h. Mercury is close to Uranus: only 19.6' separated from center of Uranus at 15:41 GMT, 9th March. On the 21st, Mercury is at dichotomy/Half phase.
(On March 2nd, RA=23h12m10s Dec= -639.3' (J2000) Distance=1.332AU Elongation= 5 Phase k=98% Diameter=5.0")

Venus: is a morning star of magnitude -4.1, The planet is in constellation Sagittarius at the start of the month. It is best seen from 5.8h -13.4h.
(On March 1st, RA=20h03m02s Dec=-1931.6' (J2000) Distance=1.055AU Elongation= 41 Phase k=71% Diameter=15.8")


Moon Phase Now!

Moon Phase Now!

Earth: The vernal equinox occurs at 23:31 UT, 20th March. Spring (Northern Hemisphere) begins at the equinox.

The Moon: New Moon on the 4th at 20:45.9 GMT.The Moon is near Venus on the 1st March. Lunar perigee and full moon on the 19th.

Mars: at magnitude 1.2 starts the month in the constellation Pisces, and is lost in the glare of the Sun. The planet rises at 07:05 GMT on the 1st.

Jupiter: is still bright at magnitude -2.1 in the constellation Cetus.
Jupiter will be visible in the south-western evening sky for all of the month. The planet is best seen from 17.9h -20.3h.
(On March 1st, RA= 0h30m17s Dec= +203.7' (J2000) Distance=5.809AU Elongation= 27 Diameter=33.9")


Saturn: at magnitude 0.5 sits in the constellation Virgo. The planet is best seen from 21.1h - 6.8h. The planet is the brightest object in the constellation and worth a look through binoculars this month. Saturn's rings are tilted 9 degrees to our line of sight.
(On March 1st, RA=13h03m24s Dec= -351.9' (J2000) Distance=8.786AU Elongation=144 Diameter=18.8" )


Uranus is in the constellation Pisces. Uranus at magnitude 5.9, has a bluish-green hue and appears 3.7 arcseconds wide. Mercury is in conjunction with Uranus: only 19.7' separated from center of Uranus at 16:05 GMT, 9th March. The planet is in conjunction: only 42.3' separated from center of Sun (Distance to earth: 21.083 AU) on the 21st March. Uranus will set at 19:29 GMT at the star of the month. On the 22nd, Uranus is at its furthest distance from the earth.

Neptune: is in the constellation Aquarius.

Pluto is in the constellation Sagittarius (mag 14.1). Normally, a finder chart is necessary to help in identifying the 0.1" diameter dwarf planet. The dwarf planet is best seen from 19.4h - 5.3h.
(On March 1st, RA=18h29m16s Dec=-1846.6' (J2000) Distance=32.424AU Elongation= 63 Diameter=0.1")

The Sun enters the zodiac sign Aries at 23:21 GMT, 20th March.



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Highlights

Start of Spring
On the Vernal (Spring) Equinox, March 20th, the Sun moves north of the Earth's Equator. From the Vernal Equinox until the Autumnal Equinox, in September, the Sun will be in the Northern Hemisphere. On the Equinox, the Sun rises due East and sets due West. The festival of the Goddess Eostar, to whom the hare and the scarlet egg are sacred, takes place at the Vernal Full Moon.
From a very dark location at that time, look for the Zodiacal Light, a huge soft glowing column of light in the western horizon. It is the light of the Sun reflected off dust particles in the inner solar system. Its axis closely coincides with the ecliptic.

The Andromeda Galaxy
The great Andromeda Galaxy ("M31") is clearly one of the most glorious and resplendent of all deep-sky objects, and is visible in the northern skies until about midnight. At 2 million light years distant its regarded as the furthest thing visible to the unaided eye and is frequently called a sister galaxy to our own. Easily witnessed as a fuzzy elongated patch 4 degrees long (8 times the diameter of the full Moon), it is one of the most famous objects in our sky. Now take a few minutes and imagine being on a planet in M31, gazing up one evening and you would likely see our home as a ghostly-elongated patch high above in the alien skies. M31 was the first object positively identified as being located outside the Milky Way. Previously the Universe was thought not to extend beyond our own Galaxy, and the galaxies were felt to be disk shaped clouds of gas, possibly in the process of forming a new solar system like our own. This discovery in 1926 complete redefined our understanding of the Universe, its size and our place in it. When you find the galaxy, hold out your hand and cover it up. You have just hidden an estimated 300 billion stars and at nearly 200,000 light years across it is one of the largest galaxies known. The whole mass slowly rotates around the central hub; the core takes about 11 million years while the outer arms 90 million years or more. There is a small satellite galaxy, M32 that orbits M31 similar to our own Magellanic Clouds visible in the Southern Hemisphere.

Open cluster, M41
Within the constellation Canis Major, the great dog, is a splendid star cluster called M41. Located just south of Sirius (the brightest star in the sky next to the Sun), it is a large naked eye object of about 100 stars. The cluster is moving away from us at around 20 miles/second and is said to be about 20 light years across. This is one of the few deep-sky objects to have been recorded by the ancients, being mentioned by Aristotle around 325 BC.

The Crab Nebula, M1.
The famous Crab Nebula, M1. is nestled near the left horn of Taurus the Bull, you will find the Crab, so called due to its spindly, delicate appearance. Also known by the less romantic name of "M1", it was discovered in 1731, and is the remnant of the supernova of July 4, 1054 AD. Its hydrogen cloud is expanding at a rate of over 600 miles/second making it well over six light years across. M1 is home to one of the strongest x-ray sources known. Its source was traced to a neutron star, the first ever seen. A neutron star is the final remnant of a supernova which collapsed so tightly on itself that it is likely on the order of 6 miles in diameter yet with a density so great a single teaspoon full would be, well, really really REALLY heavy (on the order of a 1000 million tons). This discovery of the Crab Nebula's central star was the first visible evidence of such a peculiar beast and only happened when after first being detected by radio. As the star collapsed it picked up a spin, and as it would get smaller the spin rate would increase, not at all unlike an ice-skater who spins faster when she holds her arms in close to her body. Combine this with several other extreme conditions; radio energy was shot out of the poles much like a beacon from a lighthouse in the depths of the night. In this case the lighthouse was flashing us once every 1.33 seconds. At first some astronomers felt that this might be a sign of extraterrestrial intelligence, but more rational heads prevailed once the star was visually detected and seen to flash on and off. Since then well over a hundred of these "pulsars" have been discovered, one flashing of the incredible rate of 30 times a second! At ninth magnitude, the Crab is probably too dim to see with binoculars but is clearly visible in modest telescopes.



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Watch out for sporadic meteors. Their rates for the Northern Hemisphere are now reaching a plateau. Expect around 12 random meteors per hour during the morning hours

Shower Activity Period Maximum Radiant Velocity ZHR
Date R.A. Dec. km/s
Delta Leonids Feb 15-Mar 10 Feb 22 11:12
+16 23 2
Beta Leonids Broad Mar 4 11.0h 13.2 21.2 4.0
Alpha Virginids Mar 10 176 +9 2
Theta Virginids Mar 10 176 +9 2
Gamma Normids 11 - 22 Mar 11 16.7 -44.0 58.9 5.5
Gamma Virginids Jan 25 to April 15 Mar 25 12.0 5.7 22.2 4.6


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march.gif

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The astronomical start to spring - or the vernal equinox - occurs March 20 at 7:21 p.m. EDT, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory. That's when the sun starts loitering in the Northern Hemisphere, having appeared to cross the celestial equator. Remember, the sun is stationary and we Earthlings are the ones moving. From our perspective, it looks like the sun is moving.
In a cosmic scene of down-escalator, up-escalator, Jupiter heads toward the horizon, while Mercury makes a fun cameo appearance rising relatively high from mid- to late March.

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It's March in Australia so welcome to the best skies in the world. Out of the 88 constellations we've got the pick of the crop! So, it's just you, me and the starry night. Depending on your age and your eyesight, you can see up to about 1500 to 2000 stars on a clear night. Ready? Then let's go! You'll need a blanket to sit on, a pair of binoculars, and a pillow.

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