January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Celestial Highlights for March 2015

Posted: Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

by Robert Victor with twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller

Links to evening and morning twilight sky maps for use in southern California in March 2015 appear below. Links to related activities on the changing visibility of stars and planets, a selection of sky maps for northern California (exact for lat. 40° N), and a preview of Comet Halley’s next appearance in 2061, are now available at www.abramsplanetarium.org/msta/

March 2015 at dusk. At dusk in early March 2015, the four brightest “stars”, in order of brilliance, are: Venus in west; Jupiter, in eastern sky; Sirius, the “Dog Star”, 40 degrees up in south as seen from the Coachella Valley, and Canopus, less than 4 degrees up when it passes due south about 21 minutes before Sirius does. Sounds of nature enrich the stargazing experience. In Palm Springs, we’ve been hearing frogs in nearby Tahquitz Creek on warmer nights since December.

Canopus passes directly overhead for observers near latitude 53° south, within 14° N of the Antarctic Circle, so you’d have to go all the way to southern Argentina or Chile to stand on terra firma directly beneath the star. From the Coachella Valley, you must choose your site carefully, or mountains might block your view. From my abode in Palm Springs, I see Canopus blink off when it goes behind a mountainside several minutes before it reaches its high point.

From Palm Springs and Desert Hot Springs, Canopus passes due south only 4° up in a dark sky at 7:32 p.m. PST on March 1, and then four minutes earlier each day, to 7:08 p.m. on March 7, and suddenly to 8:04 p.m. PDT on Sunday, March 8, an hour later than you might expect, until you recall that you’ve just reset your clock to daylight saving time. (Your friends elsewhere in southern California should add 4 minutes to these times for every degree their longitude is west of 116.5°, or subtract if east.) By March 11 or 12 the star reaches its high point only about an hour after sunset. Within a few days more, as the star’s “transit time” backs closer to the time of sunset, the sky will become too bright to catch Canopus at its high point.

Other features of the early evening: A telescope reveals Venus now in gibbous phase, and up to four of Jupiter’s moons discovered by Galileo in 1610. Venus and Jupiter, closing from 123° apart on March 1, to 85° apart on the 31st, will have a spectacular pairing on June 30. Mars, now on the far side of its orbit, doesn’t reveal much telescopically, but it’s visible to naked eye and binoculars, sinking lower in twilight 4° to 17° below Venus.

Orion’s 3-star belt (not bright enough to be shown on our twilight chart) lies midway between red Betelgeuse and blue Rigel. The belt points the way leftward toward Sirius, and the opposite way toward Aldebaran, eye of Taurus, the Bull, and beyond to the Pleiades or “Seven Sisters” star cluster (also not plotted, but beautiful in binoculars). The huge “Winter Hexagon”, in counterclockwise order Sirius-Rigel-Aldebaran-Capella-Pollux-(Castor, not shown)-Procyon and back to Sirius, with Betelgeuse inside, contains 7 of the 21 stellar objects of first magnitude or brighter (16 stars and 5 planets) ever visible 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 bright Jupiter, itself followed by Leo, the Lion, with the star Regulus marking his heart. Perhaps the Lion is 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. Use this memory aid: “Follow the arc (curve of the bear’s tail or handle of the Big Dipper) to Arcturus.”

March Moon Madness

The Moon can be easily spotted daily at evening mid-twilight (about 40 minutes after sunset) March 1-5 and March 21-April 4.

At dusk on Monday, March 2, the fat gibbous Moon is well up in the eastern sky, 5°-6° north (upper left) of Jupiter. Now through July, the Moon will pass Jupiter in the evening sky every 27 or 28 days. The interval is shorter than the Moon’s cycle of phases, 29.5 days, so each time it overtakes Jupiter, the Moon will appear progressively less full.

On March 4, the nearly Full Moon will rise 35-40 minutes before sunset, and on March 5, the Moon, just past Full, rises shortly after sunset. In the following days, moonrise occurs nearly an hour later each night, making it more convenient to switch your moon-watching time to predawn.

March 2015 at dawn.

The brightest objects in morning twilight, in order of brilliance, are: Arcturus high in WSW to W; Vega high in NE; early in month, Mercury low in ESE, closely matches or slightly outshines Arcturus, but it sinks into bright twilight after midmonth as it approaches the far side of the Sun. Saturn, steady in S to SW, is next in brightness in the morning sky.

Look earlier than map time, at least an hour before sunrise, and you’ll find the Big Dipper in NW. Follow its curved handle to Arcturus, and then to Spica. Tip: “Follow the arc to Arcturus and drive a spike to Spica.”

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

Compare steady Saturn to reddish twinkling reddish Antares, heart of the Scorpion, 8°-9° to the planet’s lower left.

A telescope reveals the rings of Saturn, now tipped more than 24 degrees from edge-on!

As the sky brightens, listen for the sounds of birds. Is the soundscape the same from week to week as spring progresses?

In morning twilight on Thursday, March 5, the Full Moon is low in the west, with Regulus setting 4°-5° to its lower right. On March 8 and 9, the waning gibbous Moon appears in SW near Spica. On Thursday, March 12, Saturn appears within 3° lower right of the Moon in S, while the reddish twinkling star Antares appears 8°-9° to their lower left. On Friday, Mar. 13, the Moon is close to half full and essentially at Last Quarter phase, 90° or one quarter-circle west of the Sun and 14°-16° left (east) of Antares and Saturn. The last easy morning view of the waning Moon will come on Wed. Mar. 18, when it’s very low in E to ESE in morning twilight. [The invisible] New Moon on Fri. Mar. 20 at 2:36 a.m. PDT produces a total solar eclipse in the Arctic.

Moon returns to evening: On Sat. Mar. 21 at dusk, the 1.7-day-old waxing crescent will be very easy to spot. Mars will be 2° to its lower right. For a few more evenings, look for beautiful earthshine, from sunlight reflected by 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. It is 4° upper left of Venus on the next evening, Sun. Mar. 22, and passes widely south of the Pleiades star cluster at nightfall on March 23. The Moon appears within the “V” of the Hyades cluster and 3° lower right Aldebaran on the next evening, Tues. Mar. 24.

The Moon appears inside the Winter Hexagon March 25-27, and has nearly reached First Quarter phase, half full and 90° from the Sun, on the middle one of those three evenings, Thurs. Mar. 26. On Sat. Mar. 28, the Moon is outside the Hexagon, just east of the Procyon to Pollux line, and on Sun. Mar. 29 the Moon appears 6° S of Jupiter. On the last two evenings of March, the Moon is not far from Regulus, heart of Leo the Lion.

A special night: On Friday evening, April 3, the nearly Full Moon rises 4°-5° S of due east about 26 minutes before sunset. About 13 minutes before sunset, Sun and Moon can be viewed simultaneously, in opposite directions, each about 2° above unobstructed horizons. About an hour after sunset, look for Spica 13° below the Moon. A total lunar eclipse will happen early Saturday morning, April 4.

At 3:16 a.m. PDT on Saturday April 4, a partial eclipse begins as the Moon enters the umbra, or dark central core of Earth’s shadow. The Moon will then be in the southwest, with Spica 11° to its left. As minutes pass, the dark circular edge of Earth’s shadow will become apparent. The Moon will pass through the northernmost part of Earth’s dark central shadow, resulting in a brief total lunar eclipse lasting only 5 minutes, from 4:58 a.m. until 5:03 a.m. PDT. At deepest eclipse at 5:00 a.m., Palm Springs will see the Moon 18° up in WSW, with Spica 10° to its upper left.

The brightness and color of the Moon during a total eclipse varies widely from one eclipse to another, depending on atmospheric conditions over places on Earth where Sun is rising or setting at time of eclipse. Sunlight must pass through these zones in order to reach Moon during total eclipse, and presence of clouds in lower atmosphere or volcanic aerosols in stratosphere can block much of the sunlight and darken Earth’s shadow. The great volcanic eruptions of 1963, 1982, and 1991 were each followed by exceptionally dark total lunar eclipses. The French astronomer Andre Danjon devised a five-point brightness or luminosity scale to help observers rate darkness and color of a total lunar eclipse. Observe for yourself how the eclipse on morning of April 4 compares to others! Get Danjon’s scale at http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/OH/Danjon.html and then select the rating from the 5-point L (luminosity) scale best matching the darkness and color of the Moon at beginning, middle, and end of totality.

After 5:03 a.m., the Moon slowly withdraws from the Earth’s umbral shadow, until 6:45 a.m., when the partial phase of the eclipse comes to an end. But from the Coachella Valley, the moon sets before the end of the partial eclipse.

Another total lunar eclipse, the fourth and last in a tetrad of total lunar eclipses at 6-month intervals since April 2014, will be seen at a much more convenient hour for students and the general public, beginning at dusk, Sunday, Sept. 27.

For more information on sky events in 2015, see these articles and activities.

http://www.classroomscience.org/celestial-highlights-for-2015

(A selection of twilight sky charts for use during months of the best planet gatherings.)

http://www.classroomscience.org/getting-started-in-skywatching-for-school-year-2014-2015

(Scroll down to “Modeling seasonal visibility of stars and visibility of the planets.” Includes planet orbit charts, a data table for plotting planets, and an activity sheet with 15 questions on visibility of stars and planets in 2015-2016.)

 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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