As the long cold nights fade into longer warmer days its always nice to have a look out at the sky to see what you can entertain yourself with, especially as we come into a second year of lockdowns. So take some time to look up, there are some lovely events happening in the sky this time of year.
One of the first astronomical events of the month of March is an exciting one; on the 6th there is a chance to see Mercury at its greatest western elongation. Mercury, as a planet closer to the sun than Earth (an inferior planet), appears to simply zigzag across the sun throughout the year. The Greatest Western elongation then, is the greatest angular separation from the sun. In the night sky this means we will see Mercury preceding the sun in the eastern sky before sunrise at around 7am. It will be low and close to the horizon.
That’s not all, though – in early March we have another event featuring Mercury. There will be a conjunction of Mercury and Jupiter – placing them 0.3 of a degree away from each other. So if you look out in the morning sky for Mercury at its greatest western elongation, you’ll be able to see it brush up against the king of the planets as well! The time at which the two planets are closest together will be the morning of the 5th, but they might be tricky to see as the sun will be coming up at that time. Maybe try a good pair of binoculars to help out.
Toward the end of March we have the spring equinox. This is the date when the day and night each last 12 hours – they are equal in length, giving it the name equinox. This date signals the beginning of spring in the astronomical calendar.
The full moon in March is called the Worm Moon, rather pleasingly, and will be on the 28th. The name is because this is the time of the year when the ground begins to soften after the cold winter and earthworms start appearing again. This particular moon, though, has quite a few names – it is also the Crow Moon, Eagle Moon, Goose Moon (All creatures which reappear at this time of year), the Crust Moon (after the crust the snow forms when it melts during the day and refreezes at night), the Wind Strong Moon (after, you guessed it, strong winds), the Sore Eyes Moon (after the glare of the sun on late winter snow) and the Sap Moon or Sugar Moon (this was the time of year when the Native Americans, who gave these names to the full moons, started tapping sugar maple trees for sap).
The Native Americans weren’t the only ones to name their moons, though; this month’s moon has a few traditional Christian names as well. If the full moon in March occurs before the Spring equinox, it is named the Lenten moon after the time of fasting, and if it is after the equinox, the moon is called the Paschal moon, after the Easter period.
The Worm moon this year is the first full moon of spring (and therefore the Paschal Full moon) – so we can start looking forward to longer days and hopefully even bit of nice weather!
Vulpecula is a small, discreet constellation in the middle of the Summer triangle representing a fox. It was not originally a constellation that represented a figure in Ancient myth, but its creator, Johannes Hevelius said it represented the fox bringing a goose to Cerberus. He also created the constellation Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the underworld, but that constellation is now obsolete and no longer recognised. Over its lifespan the constellation Vulpecula has gone through some changes. When Hevelius named the constellation it was called Vulpecula et Anser, or the fox with the goose. It was then broken up into two constellations called Vulpecula the fox and Anser the goose. They were then merged once more, and the goose lost its starring role – the whole constellation is now simply called Vulpecula. The goose, however, still features as the only named star in the constellation – Alpha Vulpeculae is also called Anser.
Delphinus is one of the smallest constellations in the night sky. You will see it in the Eastern sky in the early mornings of Spring. You might have guessed that it represents a dolphin, which it absolutely does. There are a few stories associated with this constellation, which was created by Ptolemy in the 2nd Century BC. The first is that it was a dolphin sent by Poseidon to find the sea nymph he was in love with, the Nereid called Amphitrite. The other story, is that it represents the dolphins that saved the Greek Poet Arion’s life at sea. He had been kidnapped by pirates, out to steal the wonderful riches Arion had won at a musical competition, and the pirates offered Arion a choice: he could commit suicide and be rewarded with a proper burial on land, or he could be thrown out to sea to die. Arion asked to sing one last song, and sang a song full of praise for Apollo, the god of poetry (who also frequently appeared as a dolphin), before throwing himself to sea. The song attracted a pod of dolphins to the boat, and one carried Arion safely to shore.
So, have a look out for some slightly more obscure constellations this spring, and for some planetary shenanigans as well. Be sure to be kind to any worm friends you may see now that the ground is softer!