January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Sky Events for March 2013

Posted: Friday, February 1st, 2013

Mornings during Feb. 25-Mar. 9, you can continue following the Moon by looking an hour before sunrise. On Feb. 25, find the Full Moon low in the west, with Regulus within 7° to its upper right. On Feb. 28, the waning gibbous Moon has Spica, the spike of grain in Virgo’s hand, 11° to its upper left. On March 1, Spica will appear 3° to the Moon’s lower right. On Mar. 2, Saturn will appear 4° above the Moon. On Mar. 3, the Moon will appear midway between Saturn to the west and Antares to the east, nearly 15° from each. On Mar. 4, Antares, the red supergiant star marking the heart of the Scorpion, will appear 5°-6° below the Moon, now just over half full and approaching Last Quarter (half moon) phase. If you look 4°-5° left of Antares, you’re facing the direction the Earth is headed in our revolution around the Sun. About 3-1/2 hours later, we’ll pass just east of the Moon’s position that morning, but fortunately, again, the Moon won’t be there. On Mar. 5, the fat crescent Moon will be to the east (left) of Antares, and on Mar. 6 above the Teapot of Sagittarius. On Mar. 8, the waning crescent will be within 4° below the pretty binocular double star Alpha in Capricornus, and on March 9, the 7 percent crescent Moon will appear very low in ESE. The last chance to catch the Moon in this cycle will come on the morning of Sunday, March 10, about 30 minutes before sunrise, when the 2 percent crescent will be no more than 5° above the horizon, some 10° south of due east. From southern California, your sighting will be about 30-31 hours before New Moon, which occurs on Monday, March 11 at 12:51 p.m. PDT. Don’t forget to set your clocks ahead one hour when you settle in for the night on March 9 — Daylight saving time begins early Sunday morning, March 10.

Comet PanSTARRS will be at its best in evening twilight in second and third weeks of March. Discovered far beyond the distance of Jupiter in June 2011, its orbit was calculated and it was determined that the comet will approach to only 0.30 astronomical unit from the Sun (within 28 million miles, inside the orbit of Mercury), on the evening of March 9, 2013. Until recently, brightness was forecast to peak at about zero magnitude, but observations until just before this writing show the comet falling short of predictions, and may reach only third magnitude. In either case, we can tell you when and where to look for this Comet, and you can see for yourself. 

For California sky watchers, Comet C/2011 L4 (PanSTARRS) until March 2 is above the horizon only in the daytime, so it is the task for more southerly observers to keep tabs on the comet to watch what is going on.

From Southern California, on Saturday, March 2, the Comet sets nearly simultaneously with the Sun, but some 19°-20° farther south (left). Unless the Comet greatly exceeds its best forecasts, it will not be observable on that date from SoCal or locations farther north.

The Comet moves farther north and higher at sunset each day, setting later, in a darker sky. By Thursday, March 7, the Comet for SoCal (latitude of Los Angeles and Palm Springs) sets when the Sun is nearly 10° below the horizon, after mid-twilight (Sun 9° down), about 7° to the left of the sunset position some 44 minutes after sunset.

During the evenings of March 8-11, you can make timed observations of the Sun as it approaches the western horizon to forecast where the Comet will appear later that evening. On those evenings, the Comet will appear within a few degrees left or right of the Sun’s earlier position. Warning: Especially on the first evenings, you’ll need an unobstructed view of the western horizon, or else the Comet might be covered up too early!

Here are the details:

On Friday, March 8, follow the Sun until it is no more than 2 degrees above the true horizon, and note the Sun’s position in relation to your distant horizon features, and note the time. Wait 52 minutes (SoCal) to 50 minutes (Northern California), and, if the Comet is bright enough, you’ll find it 4° to the left of the Sun’s earlier position.

On Saturday, March 9, the evening PanSTARRS passes the perihelion of its orbit, follow the Sun until it is 3° to 2° above the true horizon, some 19 to 15 minutes before sunset, and note the Sun’s position in relation to your horizon scene, and note the time. Wait 58 minutes (SoCal) to 57 minutes (NoCal), and look for the Comet just over 1° to the left of the Sun’s earlier position.

On Sunday, March 10, you’ll be operating about an hour later by your clocks now set to Daylight Saving Time, but still during twilight. The Comet now sets just over an hour after sunset. Follow the Sun until it is 4° to 3° above the true horizon, about 24 to 22 minutes before sunset, and note the Sun’s position in relation to your horizon scene, and note the time. Wait 64 minutes (SoCal) to 65 minutes (NoCal), and look for the Comet nearly 2° to the right of the Sun’s earlier position.

On Monday, March 11, follow the Sun until it is about 5° above the horizon, about 30 minutes before sunset, and again note the Sun’s position over your landscape and note the time. Wait 69 (SoCal) to 71 (NoCal) minutes, and look for the Comet just over 4° right of the Sun’s earlier position.

On Tuesday, March 12, you won’t need to use this time delay/azimuth offset method to locate PanSTARRS. Just wait until the sky gets reasonably dark; nautical twilight, Sun 12° down, occurs 54 minutes after sunset from SoCal. Before then, find a young crescent Moon very low, nearly due west, and as the sky darkens, use binoculars to spot the Comet within 4° to the left of the crescent Moon. If the comet lives up to its original expectations, it should be a stirring sight! Even if the Comet doesn’t perform, just the sight of the very thin, 31-hour crescent would be a fine reward.

The waxing Moon appears much higher each evening, and on Wednesday, March 13, Californians will find the Comet 11° below and slightly right of the lunar crescent. On Thursday the 14th, look nearly 23° lower right of the crescent.

Observing at nautical twilight (Sun 12° down), comet watchers in southern California will see PanSTARRS almost directly above the Sun’s position on March 14. We might then expect to see the Comet’s ion tail point straight upward, and the dust tail curving to the upper left. Observers in NoCal will find the northbound comet straight above the Sun’s position on the next evening.

By Sunday, March 17, the Comet will be nearly 6° above the horizon at nautical twilight from SoCal. As if to compensate in case the Comet didn’t “pan out”, on this same evening there will be a spectacular compact gathering of the crescent Moon with Jupiter, Aldebaran, and the Hyades star cluster, not to be missed!

Seen at nautical twilight from SoCal, Comet PanSTARRS will stay at 6° altitude but fade as it travels northward, standing in the WNW on March 21, and in the NW around April 3. From northern California, the Comet will continue getting higher as March progresses.

On the night of March 28-29, PanSTARRS passes nearly 30° due north of the Sun, and thereafter is in better position for predawn viewing. But by then the Comet will have faded to 3.5 magnitudes below its peak brilliance, or only 1/25 as bright as at its March 9 perihelion.

For more on Sky Calendar (the source of the illustrations accompanying this article), visit www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/SkyCalendar/.

For the latest report on what to expect of Comet PanSTARRS, visit: http://www.skyandtelescope.com/skytel/beyondthepage/Comet-PanSTARRS-Updates-185665152.html

See also: http://www.aerith.net/comet/catalog/2011L4/2011L4.html

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

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  1. […] For sky events in March 2013, including details on locating the Comet PanSTARRS, click here. […]

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