Mar 01

March 2008

What’s Up in the Sky March, 2008
By Peter Burkey

A parade of planets dominates the sky this month and my two favorite constellations are both easily visible.

If you face south, Mars is nearly overhead. Saturn follows close behind below the constellation Leo, the Lion, just east of the star Regulus. For the other three naked-eye planets, Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter, you have to wait until the hour before sunrise. Jupiter will be the brightest object in the southeast. In the east Venus is even brighter but much lower and harder to spot as the month progresses. Much dimmer Mercury is just to the right of Venus. They are joined by a thin crescent moon on the 5th. Use binoculars for that one.

On the few clear nights we have had in February you probably saw Orion, the Hunter, standing tall in the southwest but you may have missed the Big Dipper which was lower and less conspicuous in the northeast. This month they can still be found on opposite sides of the sky but now the Big Dipper, standing upright on its handle, is also about halfway up and easier to pick out.

Technically the Big Dipper is not a constellation but a star pattern that is part of a larger constellation, in this case Ursa Major. But comparisons between it and Orion are interesting. Both contain seven main stars with distinctive three-star patterns within – the belt of Orion and the handle of the Big Dipper. Also, the majority of stars that form each are themselves members of the same cluster with those in the Dipper about 80 light years (LY) away while Orion’s stars average 1000 to 1500 LY.

One major difference between the two is their neighbors. The Big Dipper sits alone, far from other bright constellations, while Orion traverses the sky surrounded by friends.

Orion’s departure to the west and the Big Dipper’s ascent in the northeast usher in the constellations of spring, soon to be up in the sky.

This month in history:
March 1: George O. Abell born – 1927
March 5: Voyager 1 makes closest approach to Jupiter – 1979
March 13: Uranus discovered by William Herschel – 1781
March 16: Carolyn Herschel born – 1750
March 18: Soviet rocket explosion at launch pad kills 48 workers – 1980
March 22: Comet Hale-Bopp passes closest to Earth – 1997
March 23: Russian space station, Mir, reenters atmosphere -2001
March 29: First fly-by of Mercury made by Mariner 10 – 1974

Here are this month’s viewing highlights:

Planets this month: Venus and Mercury form a close pair near the eastern horizon 30 minutes before sunrise, best viewed early in the month. Saturn remains close to the star Regulus. Mars is just west of the stars Castor and Pollux. Jupiter shines brightly in the SE at dawn.

March 5: Use binoculars to see thin crescent Moon close to Venus and Mercury very low in the east just before dawn
March 7: New Moon
March 14: First quarter Moon.
March 20: Spring begins at 1:48 a.m. EDT when the Sun reaches vernal equinox.
March 21: Full Moon.
March 29: Last quarter Moon.