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What's in the sky
Stargazing for March
February 26, 2013
By JIM WHITEMarch is here, and spring is just around the corner. This year the spring equinox falls on March 20. On that day, day and night will be just about equal in length, and we'll begin moving into the time of year when days are longer than nights. Remember that daylight savings time begins on Sunday, March 10. Set your clocks ahead ("spring ahead").
When it's dark and clear in March there is plenty to see in the night sky. Early March will bring a much-anticipated comet to our sky. Comet Panstarrs will be visible, very low in the west, in early-mid March.
Where the heck did they get that name, you might ask? It was discovered by a telescope in Hawaii that is used to watch for Earth-approaching objects that might be a danger to the planet. The program is called the "Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System," which they cleverly reduced to Panstarrs.
The latest estimate is that Panstarrs will not be as bright as earlier hoped. It looks like it will brighten to magnitude 3, about as bright as the dimmer stars in the Big Dipper.
Panstarrs will be highest in our sky around March 15. If we get a clear night, look for it soon after sunset, between 7:30 and 8:00 p.m., almost directly to the west, near the horizon. It may be visible to the naked eye, but my guess is that binoculars or a telescope will be necessary, since the comet will not be bright, and the sky will not yet be fully dark.
If skies are clear, I'll probably have a scope set up at the Trout Lake School. Feel free to give me a call if you're interested.
While you're searching for Panstarrs, gaze up a little higher in the sky and marvel at our old friend, the planet Jupiter. The giant planet is still bright in our evening sky, although beginning to slide toward the western horizon.
Venus, Mars, and Mercury will be difficult to see in March, both being pretty close to the Sun. Mercury will be low in the eastern sky, just before sunrise, in late March. Mars will be very low in the western sky early in the month, visible just before sunset. Saturn is now peeking above the eastern horizon around midnight. More on the ringed planet in another month or two!
March's Moon will be full on March 27. New Moon will be on March 11. On March 17, the first-quarter moon should make an impressive sight, located right next to Jupiter and the Pleiades star cluster. Early in the morning of March 1, the moon will be between the bright star Spica and the planet Saturn, low in the east.
If you have clear skies on a moonless March evening, a faint and rarely-noticed phenomenon in the night sky is there for you to enjoy -- the Zodiacal Light. The light is a faint glow, produced by the Sun reflecting from interstellar dust. The dust is denser in the path of Earth's orbit, and the glow is noticeable there, slightly brighter than the surrounding night sky.
In March, the Earth's orbital path stands almost vertical against the evening horizon, and the light is easier to pick out. Since we're seeing reflected light from the Sun, it is visible for a couple of hours after sunset. You'll need a moonless night to see it. Early March, up until about March 12, will be good times. Early April will also provide an opportunity
Find a spot with no nearby lights, and look in the western sky. In our area, there is a strong glow in the west or southwest, the sky glow of Portland. Look above that, for a faint cone-shaped glow.
An easy to identify constellation this month is Auriga, the charioteer. Look overhead for a rough circle of bright stars, dominated by Capella, the eleventh brightest star in the night sky. If you're facing south or southwest, the constellation Gemini is just to the left and bright Jupiter is just below, in the constellation Taurus.
Check the accompanying picture to make sure you have it. If you have a pair of binoculars, scan Auriga, and see if you can pick up the fuzzy glow of several star clusters located within the circle. Clusters M36, M37, and M38 are within the circle, with M35 just to the left. Use the picture to locate them amongst the stars. 50mm binoculars, which gather more light, will do better. A small telescope will show them very nicely. Let me know if you find them!