Mar 01

March 2009

What’s Up in the Sky March, 2009
By Peter Burkey

This month’s news includes a space catastrophe, a visitor to our solar system, and an interesting planetary observation you can try.

You probably heard the recent reports about the collision of two satellites in orbit, the first such event involving an operational spacecraft. On February 11 a U.S. Iridium communications satellite and a Russian Cosmos satellite, each traveling over 15,000 mph at an altitude of about 500 miles, crashed into each other over Siberia. The collision created a huge cloud of debris that poses a real threat to other spacecraft including the International Space Station and the Hubble Space telescope. Although the risk to the ISS is very low since it orbits at a much lower altitude, NASA may have to scrub a planned May repair mission to the higher-flying Hubble. This would probably mean its demise.

On a brighter note is the appearance of Comet Lulin which can be seen between the constellations Leo and Gemini in early March. You will need binoculars or a small telescope and a chart to show you just where to look. I recommend trying on March 6 when the comet will be right below the star cluster M44. For more information check online at skyandtelescope.com.

Finally this month you have an opportunity to make a rare observation of the planet Venus twice on the same day. Viewing the planet at dusk all month will make it easier to find by the last week when it will be close to the sun. The key is to find it near the eastern horizon just prior to sunrise. Start looking around 6:15 a.m. on the 23rd or 24th just to the left of where the sun will rise. Use binoculars as the sky will be bright. Once you spot it, look again that evening at sunset. With a little luck and clear skies you will have observed something few can claim to have seen.

This month in history:
March 2: Cometary probe Rosetta is launched – 2006
March 6: Vega 1 makes fly-by of Comet Halley – 1986
March 10: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter arrives at Mars – 2006
March 17: First solar-powered satellite, Vanguard 1, is launched – 1958
March 18: Soviet rocket explosion at launch pad kills 48 workers – 1980
March 23: Wernher von Braun born – 1912
March 25: Comet Hyakutake passes closest to Earth – 1996
March 28: Asteroid Pallas discovered by Heinrich Olbers – 1802

Here are this month’s viewing highlights:

Planets this month: Venus continues to dominate western sky at dusk setting three hours after the Sun on March 1. Binoculars reveal its crescent as it follows the sun toward the horizon each night, setting less than 10 min. after the Sun by the 27th. Saturn lies below the constellation Leo in the southeast all night. Jupiter and Mars are low in the southeast before dawn.

March 4: First quarter Moon
March 10: Full Moon.
March 18: Last quarter Moon.
March 20: Spring begins at 7:44 a.m. when the Sun reaches vernal equinox.
March 22-3: Look for Jupiter and crescent Moon low in SE 40 min. before sunrise.
March 26: New Moon.