Mar 01

March 2010

What’s Up in the Sky March, 2010
By Peter Burkey

In the past I have written about the real connection between us and the stars (as Carl Sagan said, “we are made of star stuff”). I have related how all of our scientific achievements, in fact, the entire scientific and industrial revolutions, can be traced to our quest to understand the night sky. Everything we take for granted in our technological world exists because long ago people looked at the stars and planets they saw in the sky and wondered. They wondered what were those lights in the sky and how do they move?

Perhaps you have been on a camping trip with a scout or church group and have witnessed this same wonder in the eyes of the children as they see the Milky Way or a shooting star for the first time and ask, “wow, what is that?” Perhaps you yourself have been awed by the beauty of the dark night sky.

If so, maybe you, too, are concerned that this beauty, this source of most of our understanding of the physical world, is becoming inaccessible to more and more people. The reason is light pollution.

Light pollution is any adverse effect of artificial light such as sky glow or light trespass – like the street light that shines in your bedroom window rather than on the road. Streetlights, security lights, decorative lights, and billboard lights are some of the most common sources of light pollution. It is easy to see – just go to the Lake Michigan shore at night and you will see a faint glow on the western horizon caused by the lights of Chicago and Milwaukee.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not opposed to outdoor lighting, I just think we should treat it as we do indoor lights (think lamp shades).

There is actually a great organization with a very informative web site devoted to combating this problem. It is called the International Dark Sky Association and can be found at www.darksky.org (or, just click on the IDA link on our home page). I highly recommend you check it out if you are concerned about this issue.

My top picks for viewing next month occur on the 16th through the 20th and on the last few days of the month. Starting on March 16, 45 minutes after sunset look for bright Venus near the western horizon. Use binoculars to see a very thin crescent Moon just to the right of the planet. Watch each night as the Moon climbs higher until, on March 20, it is right next to the Pleiades cluster. About a week later find Venus again and see if you can spot Mercury below and to the right. Because of the challenge, Mercury is one of my favorite objects to observe up in the sky.

This month in history:
March 2: Pioneer 10 launched – 1972
March 8: Voyager 1 discovers first active extraterrestrial volcanoes (on Jupiter’s moon Io) – 1979
March 14: Albert Einstein born – 1879
March 16: Carolyn Herschel born – 1750
March 18: Soviet rocket explosion at launch pad kills 50 workers – 1980
March 23: Russian space station, Mir, reenters atmosphere -2001
March 27: Contact lost with Phobos 2 – 1989

Here are this month’s viewing highlights:

Planets this month: Mars is visible lower left of Castor and Pollux in South. Venus is near western horizon just after sunset. Look for Mercury lower right of Venus at month’s end. Saturn near eastern horizon after sunset.

March 7: Last quarter Moon
March 15: New Moon.
March 23: First quarter Moon.
March 20: Spring begins at 1:32 p.m. when the Sun reaches vernal equinox.
March 21-2: Saturn is at opposition, rising around sunset and setting around sunrise.
March 29: Full Moon.