Article by: Mark Grimley
To make things a little easier for us to stargaze it will be helpful to head out of town for a bit, somewhere with less light pollution will allow us to see more stars. For those who live in the countryside, this should be easier. If you live in a town, you’ll have to find a spot a little further from home. Another tip is to keep phones and lights off to let your eyes adjust to the dark; 20-25 minutes should do the trick.
We’ll start with the southern skies as this part of the sky changes year-round. One constellation that is worth having a look at is Hydra the Water Snake. This constellation is the longest of the constellations in the night sky and will be more visible through March and the coming months. Hydra has very bright star called Alphard. While it is cooler than our sun, it does shine brighter as it is a giant star that is bigger than our sun.
By the end of March, we will only be able to see Orion the Hunter in the early evening, if it is dark enough. As the nights go on it will dip below the horizon and will be visible again later this year.
A smaller constellation that we can see more easily towards the end of the month is Corvus, representing a crow. It is close to the tail of Hydra, so as it moves across the sky, we will get to see this small constellation. As the month goes on it will be visible sooner in the evenings, but the evenings are getting brighter (and hopefully warmer) which means that we may have to wait a little longer for the sky to darken and the stars to be visible.
If we look towards the northern sky, which can give you good practice spotting specific constellations (since it won’t really change year-round), we can spot the constellation of Cepheus the King. When we look at the stick drawing, it looks a little more like the outline of a house though. Very close to Cepheus is the Elephant Trunk Nebula which is less than 1600 lightyears away.
Deep Space and Other Objects
Some other objects that will be visible include the Beehive Cluster (NGC 2632), which is a large open cluster of stars. A pair of binoculars or a small telescope may offer more detail of this object that can be found in the constellation of Cancer.
While looking between Corvus and Virgo, we can have a look for another galaxy. You will need to use a telescope to get a view of it. This one is called the Sombrero Galaxy (NGC 4594) and is more than 28 million lightyears away from our own Milky Way galaxy. The distance between the Milky Way Galaxy and Sombrero Galaxy means that it will be easier to see with a telescope, and finding somewhere very dark on a clear night will really help.
Mars is still going to be visible through the month of March and sets in the very early hours of the morning. But we have a good view of one of the nearest planets to Earth for a while. To find it early in the month just look towards the constellation Taurus, which will be high in the Southern sky.
While we are on the topic of planets, in the first couple of days in March we may get to see Jupiter and Venus pass by each other in the early evenings as the sun sets. Venus can appear very bright in the sky as the sun sets over the horizon, and because of this it is sometimes call the Evening Star. While we keep an eye on Venus, Jupiter will pass Venus in the sky by less than a degree. Both planets will appear very close in the sky during this time in the first few days of March.
This month the full moon is on the 7th and is called the Crow Moon. This comes from the cawing of crows signalling the end of winter. The full moon is a challenge when stargazing since it does reflect a lot of light towards us. This makes seeing any faint stars very unlikely, and even the brighter stars can be more difficult to see.
Later in the month the New Moon on the 21st will mean that the night sky is much darker and make stargazing much easier. If the Moon is the object that you are focusing on, then the quarter moon phases are the best times to moon-gaze. This is because a full moon is very bright and if you are using a telescope, you will need a filter to dim the light. During the quarter phases it can be a easier to see some of the craters along the border of night and day.
The Spring Equinox marks the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Summer Solstice. The word “Equinox” comes from the Latin for “Equal Night”, because it is one of the 2 occasions in a year that the hours of night and day are most equal. The Suns light refracting over the horizon at dawn and dusk adds some extra time to the daylight hours, but otherwise it is very close to 50/50. Our days will seem to continue to get longer until the summer, brighter evenings are nice to see. But they do mean that we must wait a little bit longer to see the stars at night.