May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Celestial Highlights for March 2014

Posted: Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

by Robert Victor and Robert D. Miller

Evening Standouts: Jupiter, Sirius, and (for Southern California) Canopus; Mars, brightening, rises into early evening view –  Venus and Mars rule the dawn.

March 2014 at dusk For monthly evening and morning twilight sky maps for northern California (exact for lat. 40° N), activities and videos on changing visibility of stars and planets, and a preview of Comet Halley’s next appearance in 2061, visit www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/msta/

In March 2014, the two most prominent “stars” visible at dusk attain their highest positions almost simultaneously. Ranking first is Jupiter, reaching its highest position in a dark sky it will get until many years from now. From latitude 34° north (Los Angeles and Palm Springs), it passes within 11° south of overhead. Next in brilliance is Sirius, the “Dog Star”, 40° up in south. Third in brightness in early March but visible only from southern parts of our state is Canopus, passing due south about 21 minutes before Sirius does, but 36° lower.

By month’s end, as the rising time of Mars shifts earlier to mid-twilight, the red planet brightens to become almost the equal of Sirius.

Other features of early evening: A telescope shows up to four of Jupiter’s moons discovered by Galileo in 1610. Jupiter and Orion’s red Betelgeuse and blue Rigel now lie in a nearly straight line. Orion’s 3-star belt (not shown on the chart) lies midway between those two stars and points the way left toward Sirius, and the opposite way toward Aldebaran, eye of Taurus, the Bull, and beyond to the beautiful Pleiades or “Seven Sisters” star cluster (not shown). The huge “Winter Hexagon”, in counterclockwise order Sirius-Rigel-Aldebaran-Capella-Pollux-Castor (not shown)-Procyon and back to Sirius, with Jupiter and Betelgeuse within, contains 8 of the 21 stellar objects of first magnitude or brighter (16 stars and 5 planets) viewable from southern California. Their constellations include a bull backing away from a charging hunter and his two canine followers, a pair of twins, and a chariot driver with mother goat and three kids on his shoulder.

Following this menagerie is Leo, the Lion, with the bright star Regulus marking his heart. Is the Lion chasing his dinner across the sky? Quite a menu!

By March’s end, Arcturus, the “Bear Guardian” star, pops up above the ENE horizon before mid-twilight. Follow the curve of the bear’s tail (handle of the Big Dipper) through Arcturus to brightening reddish Mars rising just south of east, and to Spica, Virgo’s sheaf of grain, rising 5° to Mars’ lower right 15-20 minutes later. (In third week of March, Mars and Spica rise almost simultaneously in a dark sky about 2 hours after sunset. Earlier in March, Spica rises first.)

March Moon Madness

The waxing Moon can be spotted daily at mid-twilight in first half of March. New Moon occurred at 12:00 a.m. PST at the start of March 1.

By the evening of Sunday, March 2, the 1¾-day old crescent is very easy to spot with unaided eye. For a few more evenings, look for earthshine, illumination from sunlight reflected by the Earth onto the Moon’s dark (non-sunlit) side. Watch the crescent thicken daily as it moves farther from the Sun on each successive evening, passing the Pleiades star cluster at nightfall on March 6, and within 3° above Aldebaran by the next evening. The Moon reaches First Quarter phase, half full and 90° from the Sun, between the evenings of March 7 and 8.

The gibbous Moon is nearly up to Jupiter on the evening of the 9th, and past it and widely south of the Gemini Twins Castor and Pollux on the next evening. The Moon hops past Regulus between the evenings of March 13 and 14.

Finally, the Full Moon on Sunday, March 16 rises about 20 minutes after sunset, and at mid-twilight is 3° up and 6° south of east. Continue following the Moon for four more evenings by waiting for its rising about an hour later each night — or switch your viewing time to morning.

March 2014 at dawn

The brightest objects in morning twilight, in order of brilliance, are: Venus in southeast, slowly declining from its astounding peak brilliance in February, and now appearing as a roughly “half moon” through telescopes; Mars in SW to WSW; Arcturus high in west; Vega high in NE; Saturn in SSW to SW. Late in month, Mercury low in ESE to E brightens to outshine Arcturus, but it drops very low in bright twilight as it approaches the far side of the Sun.

Mars-Spica are 6.0° apart on March 1, closing to 5.0° apart on March 20, to a least separation of 4.8° on March 25 and 26, in the second of three conjunctions within six months. Their final pairing, just 1.3° apart, will occur in the evening sky on July 13.

Near Vega are Altair to its lower right and Deneb to its lower left, completing the Summer Triangle.

To the left of the Mars-Spica pair lies a yellowish point of light glowing steadily. A telescope reveals the rings of Saturn, now tipped over 22° from edge-on!

Extend the Mars-to-Saturn line to left of Saturn and drop down a bit, and you’ll find reddish twinkling Antares, heart of the Scorpion.

The Moon can be followed in morning twilight, starting as a Full Moon low in the west on March 16, and ending as an old crescent very low, just S of E in bright twilight, on March 29. Along the way, the waning Moon passes four planets and two first-magnitude stars, as shown in these illustrations from the Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar.

Of all these events, be sure you and your students don’t miss the beautiful predawn pairing of the crescent Moon with Venus on March 27. As your first activity at school that day, use the Moon to help locate Venus in the daytime.

The second New Moon of this month occurs on the 30th at 11:45 a.m. PDT.

Evening Encore:

Finally, March ends as it began, with a beautiful young crescent Moon low in the western sky at dusk on March 31. Easy for unaided eye forty minutes after sunset, it will be 8° north of west, 7 degrees above the horizon, and 32 hours old.

Robert D. Miller, who provided the twilight charts, 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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