Mar 01

March 2007

What’s Up in the Sky March, 2007

Vernal Equinox and Total Lunar Eclipse

March is usually notable as being the month during which the Sun crosses the vernal equinox marking the first day of spring for those of us in the northern hemisphere.
This year March should also be notable to fans of word puzzles because we will be able to witness syzygy – the alignment of three celestial bodies. The three are the Sun, Earth, and Moon and it happens at sunset this Saturday, March 3. For observers in West Michigan the rising Moon will be engulfed in the Earth’s shadow at that time, an event known as a total lunar eclipse.

Although lunar eclipses occur on average every 1.2 years, this will be the first one since October 28, 2004. And although we will miss the beginning phases of the eclipse which occur before the Moon rises, there are still some unique aspects we may be able to see.

One interesting observation you may want to attempt is to observe the rising eclipsed Moon and the setting Sun at the same time. This may seem impossible due to the perfect syzygy alignment but because light from each object is bent by our atmosphere we are actually able to see the Sun for several minutes after it has set and the Moon several minutes before it rises. Of course, you will need cloudless skies and a clear view of each horizon. Start your search for the rising Moon on the eastern horizon right at 6:30 p.m. Binoculars will help, depending on how clear it is. Being up high will help also – like on Mt. Baldy in Saugatuck. Good luck.

A somewhat easier, but no less unique, observation may also be possible for those viewing with a small telescope or a good pair of binoculars. Beginning at 7:10 p.m., train your scope on the upper right-hand portion of the Moon and watch carefully. By 7:15 you should see a dim star appear from behind the Moon. Normally a star like this would be completely washed out by the bright, full Moon but since the Moon is in the Earth’s shadow, we may be able to witness its appearance – a rare event indeed.

I am very interested to know if any readers successfully observe either of these events. Please email me at pburkey@comcast.net if you do.

This month in history:

Mar. 1: Venera 13 relays first color photos from surface of Venus – 1982
Mar. 8: Voyager 1 discovers first active extraterrestrial volcanoes (on Jupiter’s moon Io) – 1979
Mar. 10: Rings of Uranus discovered – 1977
Mar. 14: Albert Einstein born – 1879
Mar. 16: First liquid fuel rocket successfully launched by Robert Goddard – 1926
Mar. 18: World’s first spacewalk made by Alexei Leonov – 1965
Mar. 23: First photograph of Moon – 1840
Mar. 25 Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, discovered by Christiaan Huygens – 1655

Here are this month’s viewing highlights:

Planets this month: Brilliant Venus continues to climb higher in western sky at sunset during March. Jupiter shines brightly in the south before sunrise. Saturn in ESE at dusk; look for it next to gibbous Moon on the 1st.
Mar. 3: Full Moon; Moon rises during total phase of lunar eclipse.
Mar. 11: Last-quarter Moon.
Mar. 18: New Moon.
Mar. 20: Spring begins at 8:07 p.m. EDT when the Sun reaches vernal equinox.
Mar. 20-21 See crescent Moon near Venus 1 hour after sunset.
Mar. 25: First quarter Moon.

Peter Burkey – SAAA President