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Our Friendly Skies - March 2011

March 01, 2011
  • March 2011 All-Sky Chart
Submitted photo

Think spring! Spring is coming in like a lion and out like a lamb, at least astronomically.

Look toward the east to see a backwards question mark. That is the head and mane of Leo the Lion. Each night this month it will rise higher to chase away the winter stars, including the lamb, Aries the Ram.

Look toward the south and southwest for the bright winter constellations Orion, Taurus, Canis Major, Gemini, and Auriga. They are heading toward their eventual exit in the west.

Toward the right from the winter constellations is Jupiter. Late in the month it will be joined by Mercury.

Turn right to the north to spot the Big Dipper climbing higher up the sky.

Follow the pointer stars down and toward the left for the North Star.

For more information about the March sky, download the planetarium's podcast "Skylights" at antpod.com.



SOLAR SYSTEM

Visible Evening Planets

  • JUPITER is bright in the south-southwest.
  • MERCURY is near Jupiter the last half of the month.
  • SATURN rises after Jupiter sets.

Visible Morning Planets
  • VENUS is very bright in the southeast.
  • SATURN is in the southwest before sunrise.

Of all the naked eye planets, Mercury is the hardest one to see. It's not because it is dim, in fact it is one of the brighter planets. The reason is location, location, location. Since Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, it never appears very far from the sun in the sky. It is always in the morning or evening twilight.

This is Mercury's month, or rather half month. Use Jupiter as a guide to see it.

Jupiter is still the brightest evening planet this month. Our giant planet is falling lower and closer to the evening twilight glare. It sets about an hour and a half after the sun early in March and basically disappears into the twilight by month's end.

Mercury climbs from the twilight and during the week of March 12 through 15 is within five degrees of Jupiter. On March 15, Mercury passes Jupiter and is then the higher planet. You should be able to follow Mercury for the rest of the month about 30 minutes after sunset. Mercury is about as bright as Sirius, the brightest star in the nighttime sky.

Saturn rises after Mercury and Jupiter set. In early March it rises a couple of hours after sunset and during twilight late.

Don't confuse Saturn with the similarly bright star Spica in Virgo. This pair of "stars" is striking, but Saturn leads the way with Spica below.

Look for Saturn in the southwestern sky at sunrise.

Venus is very bright in the morning at -4 magnitude. That is much brighter than any nighttime object except the moon. It rises about two hours before the sun.

On the morning of March 27, Venus is with 0.15 degrees of Neptune. This is the closest approach of two planets this year. That's less than one third the width of the moon. Unfortunately, at magnitude 8 Neptune is about 60,000 times dimmer than Venus. Since it also is in the twilight, the more distant planet may be nearly undetectable.

Mars and Uranus are too close to the sun to be observed this month.


SUN AND MOON

Spring begins this month. On March 20 at 7:21 pm EDT, the center of the sun will be on the celestial equator. After this event, the sun will be in the northern hemisphere giving us more direct sunlight and longer daylight. The equinox is the day of nearly the same amount of daylight and nighttime, and also one of the days that the sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west.

Don't forget to "spring forward" your clocks on March 13 for the start of daylight-saving time.

On March 1, the sun rises at 6:44 a.m. Eastern Standard Time and sets at 6:03 p.m., for 11 hours and 19 minutes of daylight. On March 31, the sun rises at 6:57 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time and sets at 7:34 p.m. EDT, for 12 hours and 37 minutes of daylight.

The sun enters the astronomical boundaries of Pisces from Aquarius on March 12.

The moon reaches new on March 4, first quarter on March 12, full on March 19, and last quarter on March 26. This month's full moon will appear larger than usual since it is near perigee nine hours later.

BRISH PLANETARIUM AND EVENTS

The current public planetarium program is "Dark Matters." There are many questions about the "stuff" that makes up the universe. Some ordinary matter can be seen and understood, but that does not account for all the effects that are observed. Learn about this mysterious dark matter, as well as dark energy.

Programs are Tuesdays at 7 p.m. Admission fees are $3 for adults, $2 for students, and senior citizens with a WCPS Gold Card are admitted free!

SCHEDULE CHANGE:
The March-April program was originally scheduled to be "New Horizons." Unfortunately, it was not produced and distributed in a timely manner for use this spring.

The planetarium is at the Central Offices of the Washington County Public Schools on Commonwealth Avenue off Frederick Street in Hagerstown.

The planetarium's website is www.wcps.k12.md.us/depts_programs/planetarium/index.html. For more information about schedules and special events, go to www.tristateastronomers.org.

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