The skies have been quite exciting for just the first two months of 2013, with a near earth asteroid and a crazy Russian Meteorite. Hopefully March will keep the celestial entertainment rolling with the first of 2013’s two extremely exciting comets becoming visible to us. Comets are like a young movie star making their film debut, with all the potential to shine bright and steal the show, or dimly fade into the background, disappointing all those great expectations. But fingers crossed comet PanSTARRS gives us a show to remember!

image of Comet-Pan-Starrs

Where to look for the comet. (Image credit: NASA)


Comet PanSTARRS is a very exciting new comet that has spent millions of years traveling inwards from the Oort Cloud that surrounds our Solar System so this really will be a once in a lifetime occurrence . It was discovered two years ago by the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System in Hawaii which explains it’s very strange name. It is a baby comet as this will be its first orbit around our Sun and it can break up completely as it gets closer and therefore be very disappointing or the virgin ice and gases will provide a beautiful and mesmerizing show for us here in the Northern Hemisphere. March will be the best time to see this exciting new night sky object, especially after it reaches perihelion (when it is closest to the Sun) on the 10th. It will be visible to us between 8and 20 March and the best days to view will be between 12 and 17March so you can perhaps plan your ‘comet-gazing’ around those dates. It will be low to the horizon in the west and will travel north and the days go on. You have to make sure you have good dark and clear night skies as well as a flat horizon as it may be very difficult to spot if you find yourself in a hilly area.  This is truly an amazing once in a lifetime event and really should not be missed as it will not return to our skies for another 110 000 years! So fingers crossed we have clear dark skies and the comet does not disappoint.

image of great red spot

The Great Red Spot, a weather storm vaster than Earth, is seen beside another smaller storm (white oval in the lower right of image). (Image credit: NASA)


So if you find yourself out searching the skies for Comet PanSTARRS you may want to try and spot other very interesting and exciting objects in the night sky. One of the main celestial objects that has been dominating the winter sky has been our gas giant Jupiter. It has been a hard object not to spot due to its intense brightness in the constellation of Taurus following the beautiful bright star Aldebaran across the sky, and although Jupiter has been mentioned a lot recently in the night sky Astronotes this month will provide a particularly exciting view of the solar system record breaker. If you can get your hands on a small telescope it may be possible to view this amazing planets distinguishing feature, the ‘Great Red Spot’! The Great Red Spot is a huge storm that has been raging on Jupiter for over 400 years; it is like a massive Hurricane that we would have on Earth but just drastically bigger. It’s so big you could take all the small planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) and fit them inside! This is truly and impressive view if you can get a nice clear night. The best dates and times to watch for this awe-inspiring phenomenon are as follows;


table of Jupiter sighting times


Jupiter will not be the only planet visible in March with Saturn making a return to the skies. It will rise in the south-east just after midnight and rise higher and higher into the Southern sky. A small telescope will easily show the beautiful rings of this majestic planet. It will be quite close to the bright star Spica, the brightest star in the constellation of Virgo as we see the emergence of the spring constellations as the winter patterns progress into the western sky.

One very interesting constellation that many we be glad to see the welcomed return is that of the Greek twins Castor and Pollux, Gemini the Twins. This bright pattern is rising in the Southern sky and it’s hard to miss the two bright heads of the twins named after them. Pollux is the brightest in the constellation being that of an evolved giant star that’s quite orange in colour and has the apparent magnitude of 1.14. It is even brighter than its neighbour, it’s ‘brother’ Castor. Castor is listed as the Alpha star in the pattern despite it only being the second brightest with a magnitude of 1.93. These heavenly twins where believed to part of Jason’s Argonauts, the crew that searched for the Golden Fleece. There are a few deep sky objects worth searching for in Gemini, in Particular M35. This is a beautiful star cluster that roughly spans across the same area of sky as the moon and is only 2,800 light years away from Earth so this beautiful object is not too far away from us. Consisting of several hundred stars this is definitely an object well worth spotting.

If we move below Gemini we come to a lesser known constellation of the Unicorn, Monoceros. This is a very faint constellation that would require some skill and very dark skies to spot but within it are some of the most fascinating deep sky objects, one of these being the Rosette Nebula. This nebula is quite big spanning 130 light years across and has a few different designations. It is an area where young stars are still being born with this hot young stars emitting radiation which excites the atoms in the nebula creating the visual beauty that you see in the nebula. It is best looking for this nebula on a very dark and clear night with little light pollution, and preferably with the aid of a small telescope although a pair of binoculars should provide some views of at least some of the areas of the nebula. To find it within the constellation you need to search for the mouth of the unicorn and it resides there.

March should be a very exciting month that should hopefully set us up for what to search for and expect in November with Comet Ison. It should give us plenty of comet spotting practice and hopefully will give us a spectacular show throughout the month. Comets themselves can be spectacular surprising displays of beauty or complete disappointing failures. So fingers crossed we get a month of clear skies and exciting occurrences!

(Article by Kerry Scullion, Education Support Officer)


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