Star Lite: March 2017 Events and Naked-eye Viewing

Note:  All Sky Charts Courtesy of SkyGuide App Unless Otherwise noted.

Events And Naked Eye Viewing

March 2 (Thursday): Ceres Near Occultation With Waxing Crescent Moon.  If you had weather issues like I did and missed seeing the February Moon-Ceres occultation, mother nature has arranged a “Do-Over!”  Although Ceres will be a tad farther from the Moon this time, it’s still going to be close enough so you can use the Moon as a location finder for this newly designated dwarf planet.  An extra added treat will be the alignment of three planets, Venus, Uranus, and Mars.  You can’t miss Venus as it’ll be the brightest object in the western sky besides the Moon.  Mars will be a bit harder to see and you’ll probably need binoculars or a telescope to see Uranus.  FOR SURE, you’ll need at least a small telescope with a high power eyepiece to see 9th magnitude Ceres.

This is how the western sky will look about an hour after sunset on March 2.  I had to tuck the crescent Moon near the top left corner of this image so you can see how the planets align and the relative position of dwarf planet Ceres.  Note that the Pinwheel Galaxy (M33) is in the upper right corner of this picture.  The glare of the Moon will make it impossible to see naked eye, but you’ll have no trouble seeing this relatively bright galaxy using binoculars or a telescope.
Here’ a close up of the Moon-Ceres close encounter. You may mistaken some stars in the constellation Aries the Ram for Ceres, so I’ve provided some of the brighter stars in this area so you can scan them with a low power eyepiece on your telescope, then “home in” using high power. Make sure you keep the Moon out of the field of view to keep its glare from washing out tiny Ceres.

March 4 (Saturday): First Quarter Moon Occults Aldebaran.  This is the “Big Event” in March’s night sky!  The brightest star in the constellation Taurus The Bull will literally set behind the dark half of the Moon beginning at 8:35 PM MST.  You can see this event naked eye, but it’ll be even more dramatic in binoculars or a telescope.  At 9:36, the “Eye of the Bull” will re-appear rising over the bright side of the Moon.  I suggest you be outside looking at the Moon at least 10 minutes early (8:25 PM before “starset” and 9:26 PM before ‘starrise”) so you won’t miss this bright orange star “touch” the Moon’s surface.  The best way to see Aldebaran before it occults the Moon is to make sure your field of view is up and slightly left of the Moon’s dark half, WITHOUT including any part of the Moon’s sunlit half.  I’m hoping to have clear skies using my video-eyepiece cam so I can record this encounter between a distant star and our nearest celestial neighbor.

The Moon is in the midst of the Hyades star cluster during the occultation of Aldebaran. The Moon’s glare will washout the glow of this beautiful cluster…but not magnitude -2.1 Aldebaran. Train your binoculars on the upper right hand (dark) half of the Moon about 10 minutes early to see Aldebaran set below the Moon’s horizon at 8:35 PM MDT.
Aldebaran rises over the Moon’s sunlit horizon a little over an hour after “star set.” Use this image to know the part of the Moon’s sunlit horizon where you can see Aldebaran’s rising.

March 12 (Sunday): Daylight Savngs Time Begins for Most of the United States and Europe.  Set your clocks one hour ahead to “Spring forward” before you retire Saturday evening.  This date also marks the Full Worm Moon.  To some American Indian Tribes in the northern parts of North America it was known as the Full Crow Moon as crows began to call out the beginning of Spring.  Perhaps more appropriate to the high country in the Rocky Mountains is the Full Crust Moon as the warm daytime Sun melts the remaining snow surface into an icy hard crust.  Early American settlers called this the Lenten Moon or Sap Moon after the Christian season of Lent and the time of year for tapping maple trees.

March 14 (Tuesday) through March 31 (Friday): Best Time Period to View the Zodiacal Light.  About an hour and half after sunset, look for this eerie triangular shaped glow spiking up from the western horizon.  If you live in a light polluted area, you won’t be able to see this phenomena.  This will also be your last chance to see the eclipsing double star Algol do one more blink in the evening sky until next winter.  It’s now nearer to the WNW horizon during prime viewing hours and, as Spring begins, it’ll be too low in the western sky to get a good look at it.

Sunset will occur near 7 PM MDT, so you’ll have to wait until 8 PM for it to be dark enough to see Algol. I’ve included 3 fairly bright objects (the Pleiades Star Cluster, the brightest star in Perseus, and the familiar “W” of Cassiopeia) to help you locate Algol. The image above shows Algol’s position above the WNW horizon at its predicted time of minimum brightness. You may also see the Zodiacal Light spiking up from the western horizon.

March 20 (Monday): Vernal or Spring Equinox.  For all practical purposes, one can say we’ll have equal day and equal night on this first day of Spring.  The Sun will rise almost exactly due east at 7:10 AM MDT an set in the west 12 hours later.  From this day on, the Sun will continue its journey rising more north of east and setting more north of west each day until the Summer Solstice.

Binocular Highlights

I’m trying a slightly different approach to binocular viewing for March.  I’m including views from around the compass rose so you can look in the direction that’s best for where you live.  We’ll start with West because that part of the sky is setting, so you should look there first if there’s something near the horizon you need to see.  The other directions will follow depending on how long they’re likely to be in view.  I’m also selecting March 15 because that’s the middle of the month.  If you view these areas in early March, they will be lower in the east and higher in the west.  Later in March, the reverse will be true.  Of course, you’ll have to factor in the change to Daylight Savings Time on March 12.

This view catches three planets and two galaxies.  Venus is only 10 days away from passing between us and the Sun on this date.  That’s why it’s so low to the horizon about an hour after sunset.  Each day until March 25 it gets physically nearer to us and angularly nearer to the Sun.  If you have a good pair of binoculars and a way to keep them steady (a tripod or leaning against a tree), you’ll see a tiny white crescent shape as the sunlit side of Venus continues to turn away from us.  The large smudge by the last “A” in Andromeda is the Great Andromeda Galaxy…easy to see in binoculars.  The much smaller smudge (move your binoculars almost laterally to the left through the yellow star above the “D” in Andromeda) is the Triangulum Galaxy (M33) about as far left of the yellow star as the Andromeda Galaxy is to the right.
The southern view showcases Orion’s big hunting dog, Canis Major. Start with the brightest star in the sky, Sirius-Canis Major’s collar, and move down along the Big Dog’s body to two beautiful star clusters, M41 and the larger and closer Sigma star cluster.
This northern view is actually centered on NNE because I wanted to include the Big Dipper, a star pattern most of us are familiar with. Use the stars that make up the “pot” of the Big Dipper and Polaris as guide posts to find the M81 and M82 galaxy pair. These galaxies manifest as two foggy dim smudges in binoculars when viewed from areas of low or no light pollution. See IMAGE GALLERY for a closer look at these two island universes.
The eastern horizon is showcased with the constellation that is best viewed in the Spring…Leo the Lion. The prominent “sickle” or backward question mark makes up the lion’s head and mane. Note how this constellation closely resembles, in a stick figure way, the shape of the Sphinx. The orientation of the pyramids at Giza and the structure of the Sphinx make a compelling argument that the constellations of Orion and Leo played a significant role in Egyptian mythology. Check out the Coma Star Cluster. At only 280 light years away, this cluster is large enough to show well in a binocular field. 

Telescopic Highlights

I oriented this chart (Courtesy of Peter Birren\’s Objects in the Heavens field guide) to closely match how Leo will look above March\’s eastern night sky horizon. All the objects marked by diamond symbols with stubby lines projecting from them are galaxies. They range in brightness from M66 at magnitude 8.9 to NGC 3412 at magnitude 10.5. All these galaxies are detectable through 8 inch or larger telescopes provided the Moon isn\’t nearby and you are in a reasonably dark observing site. I\’m hoping to image as many of these galaxies as possible weather permitting.

Editor’s Note — Gary Zientara of Taos Pines Ranch near Angel Fire is a former teacher and lifelong amateur astronomer. See more viewing tips at mountsangreobservatory.com.