17th March 2018
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Stargazing: More light than dark as March arrives

, by , in Features

March is the month of the Vernal Equinox, the time when winter should end and spring should begin and this year it happens at 11.44 on the 20th. It also means that the daylight is longer than 12 hours, so less night time observing. Europe-wide the clocks get moved on an hour on the morning of the 29th.

New Moon is on the 26th and full Moon is on the 11th.

Evening: sunset to 9pm

The Moon will be out of the way for deep sky observers between the 12th and the 27th.

The planet of the evening is still Venus, shining brightly in the south western sky. Night after night it will be closer to the horizon as it swaps around to become the morning star.

Around the 22nd Venus is almost as big as it gets, as seen from Earth. Some say it is big enough to see its shape with the naked eye but binoculars will do fine.

Go out at about 7pm. The Sun will have set but the sky will still be quite light and the contrast between the planet and the background sky will not be too great and so you should get a better image. What shape is Venus?

Night: 9pm to 1am

The Moon will be out of the way for deep sky observers between the 16th and the 31st.

As with last year, Saturn is the planet of the late evening and on into the night. It can be found just below the constellation of Leo, to the left. Binoculars will show spikes either side of the disk and a small telescope should show the spikes to be the rings.

Morning: 1am to sunrise

The Moon will be out of the way for deep sky observers between the 1st to the 3rd and the 18th to the 31st.

In the hour before sunrise, low in the north east it  should be possible to see the planet Venus. Hang on, you may say, Venus is the “evening star”. Quite so, but due to the way in which the orbits of the Earth and Venus interact, there are times that Venus is both the “morning and evening star”.

At the month’s end, with Venus in the east and just before sunrise, the planet Jupiter enters the sky in the south east. It will be low down but binoculars might show the Jovian Moons. But do be careful not to be using your binoculars as the Sun rises.

Telescope users have many faint comets to try to find this month and there is information on some  of them at www.cometchasing.skyhound.com/index.html Comet Lulin has, as I write this, so far stayed hidden behind clouds. During March it will slowly fade but should still be visible in binoculars for at least the first week. On the nights of the 4th, 5th and 6th it is in the constellation of Cancer within a binocular field of the Beehive Cluster, Messier 44. Unfortunately the Moon will be in the sky so you may have to rise in the early morning to get the best view.

There are some minor meteor showers this month so a clear night should bring a few bright ones.

In February two satellites collided over Siberia and their debris now surrounds the Earth in their orbits. It is not known if this debris will fall to earth or when, but if it does there may be some unusual meteor showers. Even so, there may be an effect on astronomy in that the debris could affect the shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, as it may now be too dangerous.

The collision happened on 10th February between the communications satellite Iridium 33 and the defunct Russian satellite Cosmos 2251. Within days the company that runs the satellite telephone service ensured that global coverage was restored by moving in a spare satellite that was already in orbit.

Last year I asked where were the darkest skies in Shetland. Where is the light pollution so small that the Zodiacal Light should be visible? Unfortunately I had no response.

But there may be another opportunity this  year to think about light pollution. The WWF has  set up a worldwide campaign called Earth Hour. Its  aim is to be a global statement about climate  change but it does have a spin off for those of us who like the starry sky in that light pollution will be reduced.

It is not going to happen automatically in Shetland but if you think it is a good idea ask you local councillor if we could sign up. Imagine if at 8.30pm on 28th March all the lights went out in Shetland for an hour. And if the clouds favoured us imagine what we might see.

Clear skies.

Chris Brown