Sky Notes for March 2014 with James Abbott #stargazing

The Spring Equinox takes place this year on March 20th at just before 5pm. The days become longer than the nights after this date and the rate of daylight growth is at its fastest for the year. The clocks go forward on Sunday March 30th at 1am

Early March brings a good opportunity to see the young crescent Moon at a reasonable altitude in a dark sky. This is due to the steep angle between the ecliptic and the horizon at this time of year. On the 4th and the 5th the young Moon will be easily seen in the West at about 8pm and less than 25% illuminated. Look for the glow of Earthshine on the darker portion of the Moon – light reflecting from the Earth on to our satellite.


Historic reports of flashes of light seen on the Moon – or even an explosion apparently witnessed by a group of English monks in June 1178 used to be controversial. However in recent decades impacts on Jupiter have been observed by both professionals and amateurs. There has been evidence of fresh impacts on Mars identified by space probes. Our own Earth has been hit by several air burst events, some of them for the first time due to objects identified before impact. A lunar impact recorded in September 2013 using Spanish telescopes dedicated to finding such events produced a bright flash that would have been easily visible from Earth but it appears no-one spotted it.

Mars continues to brighten throughout March and by the end of the month will be over 20 degrees up in the South East by 10pm. The Red Planet brightens from mag – 0.5 to -1.3 through March with the disc diameter improving from 12 to 15 arc seconds. In early April Mars will be at opposition and at its closest to the Earth – an event that happens only every 2 years. This year is a moderate return and a fairly large telescope – and good seeing – will be needed to see much detail on the planet’s surface.

Jupiter is still well placed though by months end is sinking low into the West after midnight.

Full Moon is on March 16th and on the evening of the 18th the Moon will pass between Spica and Mars.

Late March brings dark Moon-free skies in the late evening. Towards the West the winter constellations are bowing out with Orion setting before midnight. Looking East the summer stars are starting to show led by Vega and Deneb which will both be about 20 degrees up at 11pm. Vega is slightly brighter than Deneb but only from our perspective.
Vega is about 25 light years away; very local on a galactic scale. Deneb by comparison is several thousand light years away. The fact that we see it as brightly as we do means it must be a massive superluminous star. However the distance to Deneb is uncertain due to limitations – up until now – in our measuring techniques at such distances.

That is set to change with the long awaited Gaia mission. This probe was launched successfully in December and is currently undergoing testing at the Lagrange point L2. For the Sun-Earth system, the L2 point lies at a distance of 1.5 million kilometres from the Earth in the anti-Sun direction. The L2 orbit offers uninterrupted eclipse-free observations so that the entire celestial sphere can be observed during the course of a year. To ensure Gaia stays at L2, the spacecraft must perform small manoeuvres every month.
The aim of Gaia is to make the largest, most precise three-dimensional map of our Galaxy by surveying an unprecedented one billion stars and other objects about 70 times during the mission.

27The Sun has now been active (at least in terms of sunspots) for several months now. Whilst this cycle does not look as if it will be as active as recent ones, neither is it the very weak maximum some predicted – including in terms of a new Maunder Minimum type period. The Equinoxes are associated with enhanced auroral activity and with some big complex active regions and high energy flare events recently, will the coming weeks see the rare sight of a big northern lights display over Essex ? We can only hope and watch (image shows major auroral display over central Essex in April 2000 – Image James Abbott).


Posted on 1 March, 2014, in Astronomy News, astrophotography, Observing News, Popular Science, Society News, Stargazing, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Sky Notes for March 2014 with James Abbott #stargazing.

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