The Night Sky March 2015
Compiled by Ian Morison
This page, updated monthly, will let you know some of the things that you can look out for in the night sky. It lists the phases of the Moon, where you will see the naked-eye planets and describes some of the prominent constellations in the night sky during the month.
A Partial Eclipse of the Sun will be visible across the whole of the UK on the morning of the 20th March. See the highlight below.
Cambridge University Press has recently published two books by the author. An Amateurs Guide to Observing and Imaging the Heavens
is a handbook aimed to bridge the gap between the beginner's books on amateur astronomy and the books which cover a single topic in great detail. Stephen James O'Meara and Damian Peach have both given it excellent reviews. 'A Journey through the Universe'
covering our current understanding of the Universe (up to June last year) was published on the 25th of September. Martin Rees has written a very nice review of it.
Image of the Month
The Orion Nebula
Image: Ian Morison with 8 inch, f4, Schmidt-Newtonian.
The Orion Nebula is an immence, nearby, star forming region lying in the sword of Orion and visible to the unaided eye as a fuzzy glow below the central star of Orion's belt. It lies 1,500 light years from us, spans about 40 light years across, and is located in the the 'Orion Spur' spiral arm along with our Sun. The ultra-violet light from a group of stars at its heart, called the trapezium, excites the surrounding hydrogen gas to emit H-alpha emission in the red part of the spectrum.
This image was taken from a light polluted location one mile from the centre of a 50,000 population town and is a composite of images taken through narrow-band H-alpha and OIII filters to give the red and green components respectively and a blue filter to give the blue component (the blue part of the spectrum being far less affected by light pollution).
Highlights of the Month
March - still a great month to view Jupiter.
Jupiter imaged by Damian Peach
This is still a great month to observe Jupiter. It now lies in Cancer and so is still high in the ecliptic and hence, when due south in the evening, at an elevation of ~55 degrees.
The features seen in the Jovian atmosphere have been changing quite significantly over the last few years - for a while the South Equatorial Belt vanished completely (as seen in Damian's image) but has now returned to its normal wide state. The diagram on right shows the main Jovian features as imaged by the author at the beginning of December 2012.
The image by Damian Peach was taken with a 14 inch telescope in Barbados where the seeing can be particularly good. This image won the "Astronomy Photographer of the Year" competition in 2011.
See more of Damian Peach's images: Damian Peaches Website"
Features in Jupiter's atmosphere - December 2013.
March: Look for the Great Red Spot on Jupiter
Observe the Great Red Spot
This list gives some of the best evening times during March to observe the Great Red Spot which should then lie on the central meridian of the planet.
1st 19:46 17th 22:56
3rd 21:24 20th 20:26
5th 23:02 22nd 22:04
8th 20:31 24th 23:42
10th 22:10 27th 21:12
13th 19:39 29th 22:51
March 1st to 7th after sunset: Venus and Mars within 5 degrees
Venus and Uranus
These evenings, after sunset, Venus and Mars are within ~7 degrees of each other and so visible together in a pair of low power binoculars. On the 7th, Uranus will lie almost half way between them.
March 4th after sunset: Venus and Uranus 6 arc minutes apart!
Venus and Uranus
This evening, after sunset, Venus and Uranus come within 6 arc minutes of each other making a great sight in a small telescope. The light from Venus, at magnitude -4, is 10,000 times brighter than Uranus at magnitude +5.9 so its glare may make it hard to spot Uranus: moving Venus out of the field of view of a high power eyepiece may help. This is the closest planetary conjunction in 2015.
March 20th - around 09:30 UT: A partial eclipse of the Sun will, if clear, be seen across the whole of the UK.
Partial Solar Eclipse
Given clear skies we could all see a partial solar eclipse on the morning of the 20th. The percentage of the Sun covered by the Moon and the time of maximum eclipse varies across the country as shown on the map. Do not attempt to view the Sun directly even when largely eclipsed - you could do irreparable damage to your eyes. Eclipse glasses can be bought from many suppliers. These have special filters which reject the infra-red light as well as much the visible light and it is the infra-red that can damage your eye. Other filters that may appear to reduce the Sun's brightness may not reject the infra-red. One can make a pinhole at one end of a shoebox to project an image of the Sun onto the opposing end. Below trees, the leaves can act as pinholes and you may see solar images on the ground - or perhaps a piece of card held at right angles to the Sun which will not be that high in the sky. There is probably more chance of seeing the event in England than in the path of totality off Iceland where the chances of clear skies is not very high.
March 21st: Mars and a very thin waxing crescent Moon
Mars and a waxing cresent Moon.
Given a low western horizon on the evening of the 21st after sunset, you may, if clear, be able to spot Mars just 2 degrees above a very thin crescent Moon - a great imaging opportunity!
March 22nd: Venus and a thin waxing crescent Moon
Venus and a waxing cresent Moon.
Given a low western horizon on the evening of the 22nd after sunset, you may, if clear, be able to spot Venus 3 degrees to the upper right of a thin crescent Moon - another nice imaging opportunity.
March 12th and 28th: The Alpine Valley
Alpine Valley region
An interesting valley on the Moon: The Alpine Valley
These are two good nights to observe an interesting feature on the Moon if you have a small telescope. Close to the limb is the Appenine mountain chain that marks the edge of Mare Imbrium. Towards the upper end you should see the cleft across them called the Alpine valley. It is about 7 miles wide and 79 miles long. As shown in the image is a thin rill runs along its length which is quite a challenge to observe. The dark crater Plato will also be visible nearby. You may also see the shadow cast by the mountain Mons Piton lying not far away in Mare Imbrium. This is a very interesting region of the Moon!
The Alpine valley and the crater Plato
M16, the Eagle nebula, imaged with the Faulkes Telescope
Messier 16 - The Eagle Nebula
Image: Daniel Duggan
Faulkes Telescope North.
The Eagle Nebula, M16, imaged by Daniel Duggan.
This image was taken using the Faulkes Telescope North by Daniel Duggan - for some time a member of the Faulkes telescope team. It is a region of dust and gas where stars are now forming. The ultraviolet light from young blue stars is stripping the electrons from hydrogen atoms so this region contains ionized hydrogen and is called an HII region. As the electrons drop back down through the hydrogen energy levels as the atoms re-form, red light at the H alpha wavelength is emitted. This "true colour" image is composed of red, green and blue images along with a narrow band H alpha image. A Hubble image of the central region, called the "Pillars of Creation", has become quite famous but looks green/blue in colour. This is a false colour image where the H alpha image has been encoded as green!
Learn more about the Faulkes Telescopes and how schools can use them: Faulkes Telescope"
Observe the International Space Station
The International Space Station and Jules Verne passing behind the Lovell Telescope on April 1st 2008.
Image by Andrew Greenwood
Use the link below to find when the space station will be visible in the next few days. In general, the space station can be seen either in the hour or so before dawn or the hour or so after sunset - this is because it is dark and yet the Sun is not too far below the horizon so that it can light up the space station. As the orbit only just gets up the the latitude of the UK it will usually be seen to the south, and is only visible for a minute or so at each sighting. Note that as it is in low-earth orbit the sighting details vary quite considerably across the UK. The NASA website linked to below gives details for several cities in the UK. (Across the world too for foreign visitors to this web page.)
Note: I observed the ISS three times recently and was amazed as to how bright it has become.
Find details of sighting possibilities from your location from: Location Index
See where the space station is now: Current Position
The Moon at 3rd Quarter. Image, by Ian Morison, taken with a 150mm Maksutov-Newtonian and Canon G7.
Just below the crator Plato seen near the top of the image is the mountain "Mons Piton". It casts a long shadow across the maria from which one can calculate its height - about 6800ft or 2250m.
Some Lunar Images by Ian Morison, Jodrell Bank Observatory: Lunar Images
A World Record Lunar Image
The 9 day old Moon.
To mark International Year of Astronomy, a team of British astronomers have made the largest lunar image in history and gained a place in the Guinness Book of Records! The whole image comprises 87.4 megapixels with a Moon diameter of 9550 pixels. This allows details as small as 1km across to be discerned! The superb quality of the image is shown by the detail below of Plato and the Alpine Valley. Craterlets are seen on the floor of Plato and the rille along the centre of the Alpine valley is clearly visible. The image quality is staggering! The team of Damian Peach, Pete lawrence, Dave Tyler, Bruce Kingsley, Nick Smith, Nick Howes, Trevor Little, David Mason, Mark and Lee Irvine with technical support from Ninian Boyle captured the video sequences from which 288 individual mozaic panes were produced. These were then stitched together to form the lunar image.
Plato and the Alpine Valley.
Please follow the link to the Lunar World Record website and it would be really great if you could donate to Sir Patrick Moore's chosen charity to either download a full resolution image or purchase a print.
A montage of the Solar System. JPL / Nasa
A Cassini image of Jupiter . Nasa
Jupiter having reached opposition on the 6th of February, is high in the south in late evening and so this is still a superb month to observe it - visible through much of the night. It starts March shining at at magnitude -2.5, dropping slightly to -2.3 as the month progresses. Jupiter is still moving slowly westwards in retrograde motion towards the Beehive Cluster in Cancer. The size of Jupiter's disk falls slightly from 44.5 to 41.6 arc seconds as March progresses. With a small telescope one should be easily able to see the equatorial bands in the atmosphere, sometimes the Great Red Spot and up to four of the Gallilean moons as they weave their way around it.
See highlight above.
The planet Saturn. Cassini - Nasa
Saturn rises around midnight this month lying in the constellation Scorpius very close to the left hand star of the 'fan' that marks its head. Its diameter increases from 16.9 to 17.8 arc seconds during the month as its magnitude increases from +0.4 to +0.3. It will be high enough in the south-south-east before dawn to make out the beautiful ring system which has now opened out to ~25 degrees - virtually as open as they ever become. Saturn halts its eastwards progress across the heavens as it starts it retrogarde motion westwards on March 11th. If only it were higher in the ecliptic; its elevation never gets above ~22 degrees and so the atmosphere will hinder our view of this most beautiful planet.
See highlight above.
Messenger image of Mercury Nasa
Mercury. sinks into the Sun's glare as March begins, so this is not a good month to observe it.
See highlight above.
A Hubble Space Telescope image of Mars.
Jim Bell et al. AURA / STScI / Nasa
Mars , moving eastwards relative to the stars, starts the month on the boundary between Pisces and Cetus which it stays in for one day!. On the 30th it moves across into Aries. It dims slightly from magnitude +1.3 to +1.4 during the month as the angular size of its disk falls from 4.3 down to 4.0 arc seconds. It is about 100 times fainter than Venus. It is best observed as darkness falls,about 15 degrees above the western horizon (so will need to be observed with a low horizon in this direction). On the 11th March it will just 18 arc minutes above Uranus.
See highlights above.
Venus showing some cloud structure
Venus, is now an evening object appearing a little higher in the sky as the month progresses. So, shining at magnitude -4 all month, it should be easy to spot above the southwestern horizon about one hour after sunset. Its angular size increases a little from 12 to 14 arc seconds during the month whilst its gibbous phase wanes from 86% to 78%. It will appear as a small dot, blurred by atmospheric turbulance. As March begins Venus will lie ~4 degrees above Mars.
See highlight above.
Radar image showing surface features
Find more planetary images and details about the Solar System: The Solar System
The Early Evening March Sky
The March Sky in the south - early evening.
This map shows the constellations seen in the south during the early evening. The brilliant constellation of Orion is seen in the south. Moving up and to the right - following the line of the three stars of Orion's belt - brings one to Taurus; the head of the bull being outlined by the V-shaped cluster called the Hyades with its eye delineated by the orange red star Aldebaran. Further up to the right lies the Pleaides Cluster. Towards the zenith from Taurus lies the constellation Auriga, whose brightest star Capella will be nearly overhead. To the upper left of Orion lie the heavenly twins, or Gemini, their heads indicated by the two bright stars Castor and Pollux. Down to the lower left of Orion lies the brightest star in the northern sky, Sirius, in the consteallation Canis Major. Up and to the left of Sirius is Procyon in Canis Minor. Rising in the East is the constellation of Leo, the Lion, with the planet Saturn up and to the right of Regulus its brightest star. Continuing in this direction towards Gemini is the faint constellation of Cancer with its open cluster Praesepe (also called the Beehive Cluster),the 44th object in Messier's catalogue. On a dark night it is a nice object to observe with binoculars. There is also information about the constellation Ursa Major,seen in the north, in the constellation details below.
The Late Evening March Sky
The March Sky in the south - late evening.
This map shows the constellations seen in the south around midnight.
The constellation Gemini is now setting towards the south-west and Leo holds pride (sic) of place in the south with its bright star Regulus. Between Gemini and Leo lies Cancer. It is well worth observing with binoculars to see the Beehive Cluster at its heart. Below Gemini is the tiny constellation Canis Minor whose only bright star is Procyon. Rising in the south-east is the constellation Virgo whose brightest star is Spica. Though Virgo has few bright stars it is in the direction of of a great cluster of galaxies - the Virgo Cluster - which lies at the centre of the supercluster of which our local group of galaxies is an outlying member.
The constellation Gemini
Gemini - The Twins - lies up and to the left of Orion and is in the south-west during early evenings this month. It contains two bright stars Castor and Pollux of 1.9 and 1.1 magnitudes respectivly. Castor is a close double having a separation of ~ 3.6 arc seconds making it a fine test of the quality of a small telescope - providing the atmospheric seeing is good! In fact the Castor system has 6 stars - each of the two seen in the telescope is a double star, and there is a third, 9th magnitude, companion star 73 arcseconds away which is alos a double star! Pollux is a red giant star of spectral class K0. The planet Pluto was discovered close to delta Geminorum by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. The variable star shown to the lower right of delta Geminorum is a Cepheid variable, changing its brightness from 3.6 to 4.2 magnitudes with a period of 10.15 days
M35 and NGC 2158
This wonderful image was taken by Fritz Benedict and David Chappell using a 30" telescope at McDonal Observatory. Randy Whited combined the three colour CCD images to make the picture
M35 is an open star cluster comprising several hundred stars around a hundred of which are brighter than magnitude 13 and so will be seen under dark skies with a relativly small telescope. It is easily spotted with binoculars close to the "foot" of the upper right twin. A small telescope at low power using a wide field eyepiece will show it at its best. Those using larger telescopes - say 8 to 10 inches - will spot a smaller compact cluster NGC 2158 close by. NGC 2158 is four times more distant that M35 and ten times older, so the hotter blue stars will have reached the end of their lives leaving only the longer-lived yellow stars like our Sun to dominate its light.
The Eskimo Nebula, NGC2392, Hubble Space Telescope
To the lower right of the constellation lies the Planetary Nebula NGC2392. As the Hubble Space Telescope image shows, it resembles a head surrounded by the fur collar of a parka hood - hence its other name The Eskimo Nebula. The white dwarf remnant is seen at the centre of the "head". The Nebula was discovered by William Herschel in 1787. It lies about 5000 light years away from us.
The constellation Leo
The constellation Leo is now in the south-eastern sky in the evening. One of the few constellations that genuinely resembles its name, it looks likes one of the Lions in Trafalger Square, with its main and head forming an arc (called the Sickle) to the upper right, with Regulus in the position of its right knee. Regulus is a blue-white star, five times bigger than the sun at a distance of 90 light years. It shines at magnitude 1.4. Algieba, which forms the base of the neck, is the second brightest star in Leo at magnitude 1.9. With a telescope it resolves into one of the most magnificent double stars in the sky - a pair of golden yellow stars! They orbit their common centre of gravity every 600 years. This lovely pair of orange giants are 170 light years away.
Leo also hosts two pairs of Messier galaxies which lie beneath its belly. The first pair lie about 9 degrees to the west of Regulus and comprise M95 (to the east) and M96. They are almost exactly at the same declination as Regulus so, using an equatorial mount, centre on Regulus, lock the declination axis and sweep towards the west 9 degrees. They are both close to 9th magnitude and may bee seen together with a telescope at low power or individually at higher powers. M65 is a type Sa spiral lying at a distance of 35 millin klight years and M66, considerably bigger than M65, is of type Sb. Type Sa spirals have large nuclei and very tightly wound spiral arms whilst as one moves through type Sb to Sc, the nucleus becomes smaller and the arms more open.
The galaxies M65 and M66
M65 - Type Sa spiral, 9.3 magnitude M66 - Type Sb spiral, 8.9 magnitude
The second pair of galaxies, M95 and M96, lie a further 7 degrees to the west between the stars Upsilon and Iota Leonis. M95 is a barred spiral of type SBb. It lies at a distance of 38 million light years and is magnitude 9.7. M96, a type Sa galaxy, is slightly further away at 41 million light years, but a little brighter with a magnitude of 9.2. Both are members of the Leo I group of galaxies and are visible together with a telescope at low power.
The galaxies M95 and M96
M95 - Type SBb spiral, 9.7 magnitude M96 - Type Sa spiral, 9.2 magnitude
There is a further ~9th magnitude galaxy in Leo which, surprisingly, is in neither the Messier or Caldwell catalogues. It lies a little below lambda Leonis and was discovered by William Herschel. No 2903 in the New General Catalogue, it is a beautiful type Sb galaxy which is seen at somewhat of an oblique angle. It lies at a distance of 20.5 million light years.
The 8.9th magnitude, type Sb, Galaxy NGC2903
The constellation Virgo
Virgo, rising in the east in late evening this month, is not one of the most prominent constellations, containing only one bright star, Spica, but is one of the largest and is very rewarding for those with "rich field" telescopes capable of seeing the many galaxies that lie within its boundaries. Spica is, in fact, an exceedingly close double star with the two B type stars orbiting each other every 4 days. Their total luminosity is 2000 times that of our Sun. In the upper right hand quadrant of Virgo lies the centre of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies. There are 13 galaxies in the Messier catalogue in this region, all of which can be seen with a small telescope. The brightest is the giant elliptical galaxy, M87, with a jet extending from its centre where there is almost certainly a massive black hole into which dust and gas are falling. This releases great amounts of energy which powers particles to reach speeds close to the speed of light forming the jet we see. M87 is also called VIRGO A as it is a very strong radio source.
The Giant Elliptical Galaxy M87 HST image showing the jet
Below Porrima and to the right of Spica lies M104, an 8th magnitude spiral galaxy about 30 million light years away from us. Its spiral arms are edge on to us so in a small telescope it appears as an elliptical galaxy. It is also known as the Sombrero Galaxy as it looks like a wide brimmed hat in long exposure photographs.
M104 - The Sombrero Galaxy
The constellation Ursa Major
The stars of the Plough, shown linked by the thicker lines in the chart above, form one of the most recognised star patterns in the sky. Also called the Big Dipper, after the soup ladles used by farmer's wives in America to serve soup to the farm workers at lunchtime, it forms part of the Great Bear constellation - not quite so easy to make out! The stars Merak and Dubhe form the pointers which will lead you to the Pole Star, and hence find North. The stars Alcor and Mizar form a naked eye double which repays observation in a small telescope as Mizar is then shown to be an easily resolved double star. A fainter reddish star forms a triangle with Alcor and Mizar.
Ursa Major contains many interesting "deep sky" objects. The brightest, listed in Messier's Catalogue, are shown on the chart, but there are many fainter galaxies in the region too. In the upper right of the constellation are a pair of interacting galaxies M81 and M82 shown in the image below. M82 is undergoing a major burst of star formation and hence called a "starburst galaxy". They can be seen together using a low power eyepiece on a small telescope.
M81 and M82
Another, and very beautiful, galaxy is M101 which looks rather like a pinwheel firework, hence its other name the Pinwheel Galaxy. It was discovered in1781 and was a late entry to Messier's calalogue of nebulous objects. It is a type Sc spiral galaxy seen face on which is at a distance of about 24 million light years. Type Sc galaxies have a relativly small nucleus and open spiral arms. With an overall diameter of 170,000 light it is one of the largest spirals known (the Milky Way has a diameter of ~ 130,000 light years).
M101 - The Ursa Major Pinwheel Galaxy
Though just outside the constellation boundary, M51 lies close to Alkaid, the leftmost star of the Plough. Also called the Whirlpool Galaxy it is being deformed by the passage of the smaller galaxy on the left. This is now gravitationally captured by M51 and the two will eventually merge. M51 lies at a distance of about 37 million light years and was the first galaxy in which spiral arms were seen. It was discovered by Charles Messier in 1773 and the spiral structure was observed by Lord Rosse in 1845 using the 72" reflector at Birr Castle in Ireland - for many years the largest telescope in the world.
M51 - The Whirlpool Galaxy
Lying close to Merak is the planetary nebula M97 which is usually called the Owl Nebula due to its resemblance to an owl's face with two large eyes. It was first called this by Lord Rosse who drew it in 1848 - as shown in the image below right. Planetary nebulae ar the remnants of stars similar in size to our Sun. When all possible nuclear fusion processes are complete, the central core collpses down into a "white dwarf" star and the the outer parts of the star are blown off to form the surrounding nebula.
M97 - The Owl Planetary Nebula Lord Rosse's 1848 drawing of the Owl Nebula