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Astronomy Know How
Helping you See the Night Sky - Newsletter No. 17 March 2008
In this issue:
  1. March's Highlights
  2. Spring Constellations
  3. Elusive Planets
  4. Messier Marathon
  5. Tip of the Month
  6. News Links
  7. Become a confident Astronomer
  8. Contact Us
March's Highlights

March brings us to the beginning of Spring, a season that is favoured by many deep-sky observers for the good views of remote galaxies that it can afford.

The nights are often still cold and still and dark and due to the position of our planet in its orbit around the Sun and our orientation due to the axial tilt of the Earth, we are able to see right out of the plain of our own galaxy the 'Milky Way' and far into deep space, inhabited by other island universes that are the galaxies.

Many of these galaxies are available to simple 7x50 or 10x50 binoculars as faint smudges of light, but to get a really good view you will need a telescope and the larger the better. A good hunting ground can be found in the constellations of Leo the Lion and Virgo the Virgin and a smaller constellation above and between these two called Coma Berenices or Berenices Hair. So take some time to scan this area to see how many of these distant and faint objects that you can find. You'll need a clear dark sky away from city lights and steady air to get the best views, so if you aren't lucky the first time, don't be put off and have another go on another night.

Orion and Taurus are now sinking into the west for Northern Hemisphere observers, so now is the time to have a good look at the many deep-sky delights to be found in these winter constellations, if you have not already done so. DOn't miss the Great Orion Nebula and the famous Pleiades or 'Seven Sisters' star cluster while you still have the chance.

Finally don't forget that we have the Spring or Vernal Equinox on March the 20th. This is when the Sun appears to cross the Celestial Equator from the southern to the northern celestial hemisphere and marks the beginning of the summer 'season'. Days will become longer and nights, shorter.

Spring Constellations

The constellations of Spring are now putting in an appearance and they have a lot to offer the astronomers armed with binoculars or a telescope, or even the naked eye observer.

Leo is fairly easily recognised by its 'backward question mark' asterism, otherwise known as the 'Sickle', which represents the head of the Lion. It is marked at its southernmost point by the bright star regulus' and this month the constellation plays host to the planet Saturn, which can be found just to the east of Regulus.

Rising at around 11:00pm at the beginning of the month Virgo can be found in the south east, with the bright star Spica just clearing the horizon at around this time. With the constellation of Coma Berenices to the north of Virgo, this area of sky marks the realm of the galaxies as mentioned previously. Many of the brighter galaxies in Charles Messiers famous catalogue can be found in this region and detected with binoculars or a small telescope.

There are other interesting sights available such as M44 the 'Beehive' cluster in Cancer the Crab to the west of Leo and Melotte 111 a large open cluster of stars in Coma Berenice, which is supposed to represent Queen Berenice's hair, sacrificed for the safe return of her husband from battle. to the north-east of Virgo can be found the constellation of Bootes the Herdsman, containing the bright red giant star Arcturus, a notable orange coloured star.

off to the north-eastern shoulder of Bootes is the constellation of Corona Borealis or the Northern Crown, an attractive semi-circle of stars. This constellations main 'jewel in the crown', the star alpha Coronae Borealis is aptly named Gemma. So you can see that there is plenty to see in the Spring skies.

Elusive Planets

This March most of the planets are either hidden from our view or are difficult to see with the exception of Saturn, which continues to be a delightful sight in the south eastern sky just to the left of the bright star Regulus in Leo. If you haven't turned a telescope on this the most beautiful member of our solar system, then try and make the most of this opportunity, as the rings are slowly 'closing from our view-point on Earth and will become increasingly difficult to see over the next few years.

Mercury can be found shortly before dawn close to the south-eastern horizon, which means that it is not well placed for observing. However, you may be able to spot it by locating the planet Venus. These two planets lie close to each other in our skies for most of the month and should be visible within the same 10x50 binocular field of view. It may be possible to pick these two in daylight on the 5th of the month if the sky is clear, with the help of a crescent Moon (6% waning) in a blue sky. Venus can be found just to the north-east of the Moon's crescent, so pan your binoculars slightly to try and find it. If you can find Venus, see of you can spot the fainter Mercury just a little to the north of the mid-line between the Moon and Venus and slightly nearer the Moon than Venus. Do take care that the Sun's disc is blocked either by the corner of a building or fence, so that there is no danger that you will catch it in your binoculars. Do take care!

Mars is still visible in the constellation of Gemini the Twins as a brightish orange 'star' just to the north of the open cluster M35. However, we are moving away from Mars quite rapidly now and the disc is therefore quite small and so any detail on the planets surface will be quite hard to spot.

Messier Marathon

March is the month when it is technically possible to see all of the objects in the Messier catalogue in one night!

So, if you are a deep-sky fan, then this is the time of year for you.You should be able to see all but one of the 110 objects in this famous catalogue providing that you have good clear skies and a view right down to the horizon. You won't be able to see M30 in Capricornus from mid-northern latitudes as it is too close to the Sun. However 109 objects in one night is still an impressive achievement!

You will get two opportunities this month, one at the beginning on the week-end of the 8/9 March, which you can use as a dry run for the better conditions of the week-end of the 29/30 as the Moon is likely to wash out the fainter objects at the start of the month.

If y9ou would like more information about the Messier Marathon, please take a look at the web site

Tip of the Month

Observing Variable Stars...

Tip: If you fancy making a start in observing variable stars, that is stars that vary in brightness over a period of time, then it is best to start with relatively well known candidates. You can find lists of these in various magazines and web sites. Variable stars come as regular, semi regular and irregular and can become a very interesting area of study. You will find that with a little practice, that you will get quite good at estimating stars brightness quite quickly. A graph of brightness against time, will show you the light curve of these stars, so have a pencil handy!
  Here are some links to some other recent news stories that I thought you would find interesting...

Seeing stars: The right outdoor lighting can restore dark skies and save money, too

The rush to build the biggest eye on the sky as astronomers chart colossal telescopes to see farther, clearer more...

Five days to change tyre (on 250ft telescope) more...

Physics' funding furore more...

Astronomy Technology Brings Nanoprobes into Sharper Focus more...

  DO you want to learn more about the night sky and how to use telescopes and binoculars to see it better?..

My online course gives you all the essential information to be a good astronomer, without lots of jargon or difficult maths. You'll get loads of free bonuses and it also has videos and animations to help make the explanations clear and concise. So if you want to know what Sir Patrick wished for...

...please take a look at my eCourse called
Basic Astronomy with a Telescope. It's what Sir Patrick wished he'd had when he started out in astronomy!

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