Thursday, March 1, 2012

Astronomy: The March Adirondack Night Sky

Here are some objects for the unaided eye for the month of March. All of these objects, although small, should be visible without the help of binoculars or a telescope, so long as you have clear dark skies.

Light pollution is a killer for seeing these objects with your unaided eye. To find out how dark your location is, use the Google Map Overlay of light pollution. If you are in a blue, gray or black area then you should have dark enough skies. You may still be able to see some of these objects in a green location. If you aren’t in a dark sky location you may still be able to see these objects with a pair of binoculars or telescope. Snow will add more light pollution due to light reflecting off of it.

You can find help locating the night sky objects listed below by using one of the free sky charts at (scroll down to Northern Hemisphere Edition and click on the PDF for March 2012). The map shows what is in the sky in March at 8 pm for early March; 7 pm for late March.

If you are not familiar with what you see in the night sky, this is a great opportunity to step outside, look up, and begin learning the constellations. The sky is beautiful and filled with many treasures just waiting for you to discover them. Once you have looked for these objects go through the list again if you have a pair of binoculars handy, the views get better!

New note: Measuring Degrees with your hands, proportionally works for people of all ages. With your arm fully extended out:
Width of your pinky finger is 1°
Width of your ring, middle, and index finger equals 5°
Width of your fist equals 10°
Width from tip to tip of index finger and pinky finger stretched out equals 15°
Width from tip to tip of your thumb and pinky finger stretched out equals 25°

Highlight for viewing with the unaided eye

March 11 – 15 – Jupiter and Venus conjunction where they will lie 3° from each other.

March 25 – Jupiter and the Moon 3° apart.

March 26 – Venus and the Moon 1.8° apart.

The Moon
March 1 – The Moon will be at first quarter.

March 8 – Full Moon. The Full Moon will pass 10° south of Mars in the constellation Leo.

March 11 – The Moon will pass 6° south of Saturn

March 14 – Last quarter Moon

March 22 – New moon, best night to get out and enjoy the darkest skies possible.

March 25 – The thin crescent Moon will pass within 3° north of Jupiter to the west after sunset.

March 26 – The thin crescent Moon will pass within 1.8° south of Venus to the west after sunset.

March 30 – The second occurrence of a first quarter Moon in the month of March.

For the first week of March, Mercury will be at it’s prime location for viewing. Mercury will reach it’s greatest eastern elongation on March 5. For viewers in the Adirondacks Mercury will reach a height of 11° above the horizon just after sunset in the west, and will set after 30 minutes. Although low on the horizon and in the glow of sunset, at a magnitude of -0.4 it should easily be visible. After March 5, Mercury will slowly start to lower, and will pass between Earth and the Sun on March 21.

By March 4 Venus and Jupiter will be 9° apart, and by March 11 and 15 they will lie 3° from each other. During this conjunction the two planets will be 30° above the horizon to the west, and don’t set until close to 11pm. Venus will reach it’s greatest elongation on March 27. By the 31st Venus will be 3° below the star cluster Pleiades, in the constellation Taurus, which can be seen with the unaided eye.

As the sun sets take a look to the East and you will find the red planet shining as it rises above the horizon. On March 3 Mars reaches peak visibility and will lie opposite the Sun in our sky. This will be as close as Mars gets for another two years.

Jupiter and Venus get together by mid March for a spectacular conjunction which can be enjoyed with the unaided eye or even through a pair of 10×50 binoculars.

Saturn rises shortly before 10pm by mid-March in the constellation Virgo. Saturn will be 6° northeast of the brightest star in Virgo, Spica. Spica will be quite dim in comparison to Saturn’s bright yellow glow.

In the south after sunset you can find the constellation of Orion. The red supergiant star Betelgeuse in the upper left of the constellation making Orion’s shoulder. Below it you will see 3 stars going from left to right creating Orion’s Belt. Below Orion’s belt you will find 3 dimmer stars perpendicular to the belt. If you look at the middle star of those 3 you may notice a slight haziness surrounding it. That haziness is referred to as a stellar nursery and is the Orion Nebula. This nebula contains a group of new stars within a dust cloud. This is where and how solar systems are born.

Up and to the right of Orion is the constellation Taurus. A bright orange star, Aldebaran is the eye of Taurus the bull. Also within this constellation near Aldebaran is a grouping of stars that you can see with your naked eye, even in moderately light polluted areas; this cluster of stars is known as the Hyades.

Within the constellation of Taurus you can also find a closer grouping of stars known as the Pleiades (also known as the 7 Sisters or Subaru – Look at the logo for the Subaru vehicle, it is very similar to this cluster). Looking at it has always reminded me of a smaller version of the little dipper. In dark locations you can see anywhere from 5-7 and possibly a few more stars in this grouping. It has also been called the seven sisters and is actually a Messier object, number 45. These are very hot blue and extremely luminous stars that have formed within the last 100 million years. This grouping of stars has quite a bit of history in mythology. It rises about 45 minutes earlier than Orion in the East.

Up and to the left of Orion you can find the Gemini twins. The two brightest stars within this constellation are Pollux and Castor, forming the heads of the brothers.

Canis Major
Below and to the left of Orion is the constellation Canis Major – The Dog. One of the most defining features of Canis Major is the brightest star in our sky, Sirius. Sirius can be seen twinkling in the southern skies, and may even appear different colors as you look at it; from blue, to green, to white. This flickering is due to the earths atmosphere. Sirius is roughly 8.5 light-years away making it one of the closest stars to us.

The Double Cluster, cataloged as NGC 869 and NGC 884 is a beautiful cluster that shows quite a group of stars with the unaided eye which appear faint and fuzzy.
Look for a grouping of stars around the brightest star in Perseus, Mirphak.

Ursa Major
Rising earlier and getting higher in the sky by sunset. Mizar and Alcor is a double star in the handle of the Big Dipper. Was once used as a test of good eyesight before glasses. Mizar resolves into a beautiful blue-white and greenish white binary (double star system). They are labeled on the map I linked to above.

A couple notes
I invite anyone with a camera to share their pictures of the night sky with me if you’d like them to appear on my blog, email address can also be found on my blog. Please include a location, date and time that the images were taken. Any other information is also welcome.

With the warmer weather getting near I am scouting out a location that I can set up my telescopes and share the night views with anyone that may want to join. Public property with no closing hours, and a good view of the sky in all directions in a low to moderate light polluted area is preferred. If anyone knows of a place that is welcome to this idea please either email me with information, or comment in the comments section below with information. Looking for an area preferably in Clinton County. Again my email can be found via my blog, link below.

Photos: Above, Jupiter, Venus, and thin Waxing Gibbous Moon lineup of February 23 over Plattsburgh, by Michael Rector; Below, showing the conjunction of Jupiter and the Moon on March 25, and the conjunction of Venus and the Moon on March 25 via the astronomy freeware Stellarium.

Photo Below: Venus and Jupiter conjunction via the astronomy freeware Stellarium.

Michael Rector is an amateur astronomer with his own blog, Adirondack Astronomy.

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Although he now lives in Clinton County, amateur astronomer Michael Rector has fond memories of spending time at Great Sacandaga and West Canada Lake where the skies are dark and the Milky Way is bright.

Michael writes about astronomy on his own blog Adirondack Astronomy and is interested in getting together with other star-gazers around the region. If you are interested in getting together for an occasional star party feel free to contact him at


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