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Astronomy Know How
Helping you See the Night Sky - Newsletter No. 53 March 2011

Welcome and thanks for subscribing to this my FREE! monthly newsletter. I hope that you enjoy it.

Don't miss the 700th edition of the BBC Sky at Night programme with the indefatigable Sir Patrick Moore that will be broadcast in early March. Patrick Moore is the man that I personally have to thank for my interest in astronomy, as I suspect he is for many of you...

My new course 'all about telescopes' starts on 28th February (that's right, the last day of the month) in Chichester and also on Thursday 3rd March at the Intech Planetarium in Winchester. It is the second part of my course, 'Discover the Night sky'. To find out more about it please go here

I wish you clear skies,


In this issue:
  1. March's Highlights
  2. The Active Sun
  3. Jupiter and Mercury
  4. A Lunar Occultation
  5. Deep Sky Highlights of March
  6. Other News
  7. News Links
  8. The Secrets of Astronomy
  9. Are you interested in Imaging?
  10. Contact Us
March's Highlights

We are beginning to move towards spring after what was for many of us, was a long hard winter. The constellations are changing. Orion is slowly sinking into the west and has set by late evening. Now we move into the realm of the galaxies. Read on...

Jupiter and Mercury will have a spectacular conjunction this month. More on this later too...

Venus is now very low down in the eastern sky before dawn. On the 1st March it will be joined by a thin waning crescent Moon. You'll need a very clear horizon to see this, but it should look superb.

Saturn is steadily climbing in the late evening sky and will be at opposition next month. This is where it will be directly opposite the Sun in the sky from our point of view on Earth, so as the Sun sets, Saturn will be rising. So this month and next will give you the best chance to see it. The rings are about 10-degrees open now and can be seen easily in a small telescope at low to medium magnification. See if you can spot some of this planet's moons. Titan is the brightest and easiest to see.

The Moon will be just a few degrees below the Pleiades star cluster on the 10th of the month. The best time to see this will be around 10:00pm (22:00GMT). The Moon will be just under 30% illuminated and this should make a fine sight.

There will be a lovely conjunction of the Moon, Jupiter and Mercury on the 5th and 6th. The Moon will show an extremely thin crescent almost directly above the point where the Sun has just set. Be sure to make certain that the Sun has completely set before you use any optical aid to scan this area of sky! It will be easier to see on the 6th and the crescent will be more distinctive. and nearer to Jupiter.

The Active Sun

I've noticed that I don't say much about the Sun in the Newsletters, so I'm going to put that straight...

Solar activity in the past few years has been extraordinarily low. There have been hardly any sunspots to speak of and a lot of solar astronomers were wondering if we were entering an extended solar minimum. The date of the next expected solar maximum has even been postponed from 2012 to 2013 because of this.

However, it looks as though the Sun has decided to wake up. In the last week we have seen three significant solar flares, one of which headed directly for Earth. This is not a cause for concern as our magnetosphere (Earth's magnetic field) protects us well from any harmful effects. However, when a flare of this kind does slam into us, we usually get strong auroral activity.

So, if you live in more northern latitudes, you have a good chance of seeing the northern lights after one of these solar flares hurls its energy toward us. If the flares are really powerful then aurora can be seen much further south, occasionally down as far as southern Europe or the southern United States.
Jupiter and Mercury

I've already mentioned that we can see a conjunction with Jupiter, Mercury and the Moon on the 5th and 6th, but there will be a closer conjunction in the middle of the month.

On the 15th March, Jupiter and the planet Mercury will be at their closest for some time. You should be able to see them low down in the evening twilight.

Jupiter will be the easiest to find as it will be the brighter of the two; Mercury will be 2-degrees away. THis will be best seen in binoculars. If you have a telescope, you will be easily able to make out the disc of Jupiter and the phase of Mercury but they will be too far apart to see them at the same time in most telescopes. Mercury will be at its greatest elongation, that is furthest from the Sun from our point of view, on the 23rd. After that its phase will decrease as it heads back towards the Sun again.

A Lunar Occultation

On the 13th of March the Moon will appear to move in front of a star.Not that unusual you might think, but in fact it doesn't happen with bright stars that often.

The star in this instance is called Propus or Eta Geminorum. It is a fairly bright (magnitude +3.3) star and the event will happen shortly after 9:00pm (21:00GMT). When exact the disc of the Moon passes in front of the star depends where you are.

The unlit edge of the Moon will occlude the star first, so it will seem as if the star has been snuffed out like a candle. The Moon has no atmosphere so the star's light will be extinguished instantaneously. It can be fun to watch these events several minutes before they are due to occur and see if you can guess exactly where the edge of the Moon is.

After about an hour, the star should reappear again on the sunlit edge of the Moon. Keep watching from about 22:00GMT on the bright northern edge of the Lunar disc to see if you can see the instant that the star pops back into view. The precise timing of these event can have scientific value, as it help to determine the shape of the edge of the Moon and the exact diameter of the Moon's disc.
Deep Sky Highlights of March

March moves our view of the night sky into the spring constellations and the realm of the galaxies. Due to the vantage point in our orbit around the Sun in March, we can look out from our own galaxy the 'Milky Way' and into the depths of inter-galactic space.

From here you can head south towards the 'bowl' of Virgo the Virgin, where you will be able to find yet more galaxies to test your observing skills as many of these are quite faint and you will need a dark clear, moonless night in which to be able to glimpse them.

A useful method you can use to help you see these dim objects, is to use 'averted vision'. This is a technique where you actually look away from the object you are trying to find in the eyepiece of your telescope by around 30-degrees. This allows the light to fall on the most sensitive part of your retina and can help show them up. It is 'looking out of the corner of your eye'.

Be aware that these galaxies will not look like the beautiful pictures that you may see in the magazines an on the internet. Unless you have a large telescope, most galaxies look like smudges of light, sometimes with a brighter centre. Even though on star charts you will often find the magnitude of the galaxy given the actual object will normally look a lot fainter because the magnitude is expressed as if the galaxy were a 'star' or a single point of light, which of course it isn't.

If you are not particularly interested in galaxies, there is one other object in the vicinity that I would draw to your attention and that is M3 just inside the constellation of Canes Venatici the Hunting Dog. It is a bright globular cluster, a tight ball of stars and a very lovely sight in a small telescope.

Other News

If you live in southern England and would like to learn more about how to use a telescope then there is still time (just!) to sign up for my evening class 'all about telescopes'.

It will tell you how they work, how to set them up and how to get the best out of them. So if you got a scope for Christmas and are somewhat puzzled as to how to use it, then this is for you.

The aim is to make it as practical as possible and we'll be doing some 'hands-on' type workshops, including how to polar align an equatorial mount, how to work out magnification and what is best to use on which object and how to keep you scope in good order, among several other things. It's held on Monday evenings at the South Downs Planetarium in Chichester starting on the 28th February and at the Intech Planetarium in Winchester on Thursday evenings starting on the 3rd March. To find out more please go to the website

Another reminder is for the 'course in a box', called 'Imaging the Sun', which is now available through the website. If you always wanted to know how to take photographs of our nearest star to look like those that you see in the magazines and on the Internet, then this DVD will show you how. Pete Lawrence of the BBC Sky at Night programme fame and one of the worlds most renown Solar imagers and myself give you DETAILED instructions on how to do it. Like to know more? Then go here

If you are on Facebook, please come and be 'fan' of my new page 'Astronomy Know How with Ninian Boyle'. I'm planning to use it for lots of free information and tips on how to observe the night sky and also post up interesting events as they are set up. It will mean that you'll be the first to know about really useful things connected to your hobby, so join me on facebook

Oh! and you can follow me on Twitter too

Please take a look at and put you pictures up on our new image gallery here - and if you have any difficulties please contact us so we know about it and can either help you or sort out any problems. Thanks.

If there is a course or talk that you would like me to cover, I would invite you to please let me know. I'm keen to provide you with the information that YOU want, rather than that which I think you might like. So please tell me
  Here are some links to some other recent news stories that I thought you would find interesting...

Astronomers estimate 50 billion planets in Milky Way
There may be some 50 billion planets in the Milky Way galaxy, astronomers estimated using data gathered from the Kepler planet-hunting telescope.

Astronomers Question Existence of Solar System's Mystery Planet Tyche
A duo of planetary astronomers grabbed media attention by claiming a planet four times the size of Jupiter may be lurking in the outer solar system. They call the planet Tyche but many astronomers, however, say it probably isn't there. more...

Hubble delivers sparkling views of spiral galaxy
NASA released a dazzling image from the Hubble Space Telescope today, showing spiral galaxy NGC more...

Kitt Peak telescope to undergo major overhaul
Plans are in the works to overhaul a giant telescope on top of Kitt Peak west of Tucson. more...

See the turmoil in Jupiter's belt
Scientists are getting a detailed look inside the turmoil behind the disappearance - and slow re-emergence - of a prominent stripe of clouds on Jupiter, thanks to some crafty astronomy and help from the planet's icy moon Europa. more...

  Discover everything that you REALLY need to know about telescopes and how to find interesting things to look at in the night sky...

You can find all the information that you really need in my online course. It 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 Moore 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!

  Are you interested in Imaging?

You can learn how to take stunning images of the night sky with your digital SLR camera that will amaze your friends and family with the eBook
DSLR Astrophotography - A Beginners Guide which I co-wrote with my friend Jon Walton...

To contact us

Telephone me on +44(0)208-144-1091

or contact me by email

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