January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Celestial Highlights for March 2013

Posted: Friday, March 1st, 2013

by Robert Victor and Robert Miller

In planning a first sky watching session for your classes, you may want to begin your observations during evening twilight so students can experience the joy of discovering and identifying the brighter stars as they first appear. Begin no later than one-half hour after sunset, or even earlier when the Moon or bright planets are visible, and continue until you have the dark-sky time needed to observe the deep sky objects on your list.

Robert Miller created the computer programs to provide us with the attached monthly sky charts tracking daily locations of the five naked-eye planets and the sixteen stars of first magnitude or brighter visible from California. Positions of the stars and planets are plotted each day at the moment the Sun is 9° below the horizon, which we have called mid-twilight. Locations of planets are plotted as a separate dot for each day, with bolder dots plotted weekly on the 1st, 8th, 15th, 22nd, and 29th day of the month. Star positions are plotted as continuous tracks, with all stars drifting westward (left to right on the charts) in the course of the month, owing to the Earth’s revolution around the Sun.

For the latitude of Palm Springs (and Los Angeles), near 34° N, evening mid-twilight during March occurs about 40 minutes after sunset, and morning mid-twilight occurs about 40 minutes before sunrise. From northern California, the sky will appear to be shifted farther south, depending on the difference in latitude, and Canopus, shown a few degrees up in the south from Palm Springs, will be hidden from view for northerners, below the southern horizon. Mid-twilight from lat. 40° N in March occurs about 43 minutes after sunset.

Sometimes a star is below the horizon at the start of a month, but might appear above the eastern horizon before month’s end, for example Arcturus low in ENE in evening mid-twilight in late March. On the same chart, Deneb and Mars are very low in NW and W at the start of March, but drop below the horizon within a few days.

Here is our evening chart, with description following:

Evening Mid-twilight for March 2013

Evening mid-twilight in March:

In March 2013 at dusk, what seems to be the brightest “star” is actually Jupiter, shining with a steady light, very high in SW to W in mid-twilight.

We encourage you and your students to follow Jupiter at evening mid-twilight from now until late in May. Jupiter will lead you to a spectacular evening twilight trio of Venus-Jupiter-Mercury, all within a 5° field May 24-29. The gathering will be described and illustrated in the May issue of eCCS.

Next in brilliance after Jupiter at dusk in March is the star Sirius, crossing the southern sky during March and twinkling noticeably. Ranking next after Sirius is Canopus, visible very low in the south from the southern part of our state. (Since Canopus is so low in the sky, its apparent brightness may be greatly reduced by absorption and scattering by the Earth’s atmosphere.)

To the upper right of Sirius in March at dusk are blue-white Rigel and reddish Betelgeuse, Orion’s two brightest stars. About midway between them lies the striking row of three stars marking the Hunter’s belt.

Once you spot the belt, extend the line of stars toward the east and you’ll find Sirius, the Dog Star. Extend the belt in the opposite direction and bend slightly north, and you’ll come to Aldebaran, eye of Taurus, with much brighter Jupiter 5° farther north.

Orion’s shoulder, Betelgeuse, together with Sirius and Procyon, the bright stars of Canis Major and Canis Minor (the dogs following Orion across the sky), form the Winter Triangle.

North of that Triangle are Pollux and Castor, 4-1/2° apart, marking the heads of the Twins of Gemini. Castor isn’t plotted because it is of mag. +1.6.

Just north of overhead in mid-twilight as March begins is Capella, the “Mother Goat” star under the arm of Auriga, the Charioteer.

Note the huge oval of stars, in order, Sirius-Procyon-Pollux-(Castor)-Capella-Aldebaran-Rigel, and back to Sirius. This oval is sometimes called the Winter Hexagon, or Winter Ellipse. Betelgeuse is inside the figure, and during March-April 2013 Jupiter crosses the Aldebaran to Capella line to move within the Hexagon until 2014.

Regulus, heart of Leo the Lion, was at opposition to the Sun about Feb. 18. The star then rose around sunset and was visible all night. By the start of March, Regulus is already some 20° up in the east in mid-twilight and higher as the month progresses.

During the last days of March, Arcturus starts rising before mid-twilight, and can be spotted very near the ENE horizon. You can find Arcturus earlier in March simply by looking later in the evening! The curve of the Big Dipper’s handle leads you to the star; remember, “Follow the arc to Arcturus.”

The Moon graces the sky in evening mid-twilight during March 12-26, while changing from a thin crescent low in the west on March 12, to nearly Full, low in E to ESE, on March 26. On Tuesday, March 12, Comet PanSTARRS will appear just 4° to the left of the thin crescent Moon. (Go directly to http://www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/SkyCalendar/CometPanSTARRSforecast.pdf

for information on when and where to look for the comet.) Follow the link to Sky Calendar www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/SkyCalendar/ for views of Moon and comet for March 12-14, as well as of the Moon passing planets and bright stars during the month. On Sunday, March 17, be sure not to miss the spectacular compact gathering of the crescent Moon with Jupiter, Aldebaran, and the Hyades star cluster! On Wed. Mar. 27, the Moon rises just a few minutes after evening mid-twilight. If you wait an hour past moonrise, you can find the star Spica within 6° lower left of the Moon, and within another hour you’ll find Saturn 17° lower left of Spica. The rising of Spica and Saturn shift to earlier evening times and even before sunset in April. In March, you’ll find them rising not too late in the evening, or can find them in the southwestern morning sky.

Here is our morning mid-twilight chart for March, showing sky from SoCal about 40 minutes before sunrise:

Morning Mid-twilight for March 2013  

The waning Moon is depicted in predawn views on the Sky Calendar during March 1-10, and again beginning March 27. Watch for the Moon to pass, in order from west to east, Spica, Saturn, and Antares. 

Daytime viewing: The Moon is near Last Quarter phase (half full and 90° W of Sun) on Mar. 4 and April 3. Accordingly, March 4-6 and April 1-4 will be great school days for viewing the Moon with a telescope, perhaps as the first activity of the morning, especially if the telescope’s low-power eyepiece is fitted with a single polarizing filter. Rotate the eyepiece in its tube to maximize the darkening of the blue sky.

Robert D. Miller did graduate work in Planetarium Science and later astronomy and computer science at Michigan State University and remains active in research and public outreach in astronomy.

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.

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