Spring 2015 Night Sky Newsletter

PRELUDE

March begins the first appearance of the Spring Constellations as the Winter Constellations begin to fade in the western sky.  In early March in the evening sky the Winter Constellations are still well positioned, although by late evening the Spring Constellations are becoming more prominent overhead. By the end of March and early April, they will be prominent just after sunset.

Planisphere Image
Planisphere Image

Of special note, Spring begins as the sun is set to cross the celestial equator moving north, directly over the equator.  The March Equinox occurs at 6:45 pm EDT on March 20. This marks the start of spring in the Northern Hemisphere and fall in the Southern Hemisphere.

 

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Location of Sun on March 20, 2015

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Ceres showing Dawn Spacecraft image of curious bright spots.

Also of special note, NASA’s Dawn probe arrived at Ceres on March 6 at about 7:39 a.m. EST after an eight year voyage, becoming the first spacecraft ever to orbit a dwarf planet. Dawn’s observations over the next 16 months should reveal much on the nature of Ceres, which has remained largely mysterious since its 1801 discovery. Located in the Asteroid Belt, Ceres was once thought to be a comet, then an asteroid but the current thinking is that it is a dwarf planet similar to Pluto. Due to it’s location, it is also referred to as an asteroid. Look for much media coverage of the early images of Ceres throughout this year.

There will also be a Total Solar Eclipse on March 20 viewed from the path of totality moves across the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.  Much of Europe will experience a partial eclipse. The path is very thin for an eclipse, North American viewers will not witness this event.

Spring Constellations

The bright Winter stars Sirius, Betelgeuse, Procyon and Regal are still prominent overhead in early March, but now low in the western sky by early April, followed closely by Gemini with stars Castor and Pollox, the Twins. They mark the beginning of the Spring Constellations. The Big Dipper is now overhead, along with Bootes and the bright star Arcturus. Nearby is Corona Borealis and Draco. The bright star Spica in Virgo is well placed in the southeastern sky. Lower in the south sky are Crater, Sextans and Corvus. Higher in the eastern sky are Leo with the bright star Regulus, Leo Minor, Cancer, Coma Berenices and Canes Venatici.

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Star Chart of the Spring Constellations

 

Stellarium Image
Stellarium Image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Planets

In early March Venus is the bright “evening star” low to the west.  Mars and Mercury are less conspicuous and will soon be lost in the evening twilight. Venus is not at it’s brightest as it is in a gibbous phase. Uranus is also low in the western sky, just below Venus. Visible in binoculars, this is a good time to locate it being so close to Venus.  The show planet is Jupiter, which rises before mid-night and is high in the eastern sky by the end of March.  By early March Jupiter is just past opposition and displays it’s largest diameter.

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Jupiter and three of it’s moons

 

Saturn is a morning object in early March, climbing higher in the southeast sky by month’s end.

Moon Phases (March)

Full Moon March 5 1:05 pm EST
Last Quarter Moon March 13 1:48 pm EDT
New Moon March 20 5:36 am EDT
First Quarter Moon March 27 3:43 am EDT

Meteors

There are no major meteor showers in March. The next major annual shower is the Lyrid shower, peaking on the morning of April 23, 2015.  North Americans may be treated to an impressive meteor shower early on the morning of May 24th.  Scientists anticipate a new meteor shower, the May Camelopardalids, resulting from the dust of periodic comet 209P/LINEAR.  This shower was greatly heralded in 2014, but it ended in a no show. This year may be different, so Memorial Day may hold a special treat.

On a special note, March also marks the beginning of Fireball Season. Although not specifically identified with any particular meteor shower, fireballs tend to occur during the spring and summer months.

Comets

By mid-month, Comet Lovejoy will be making its way through Cassiopeia. (March 14, 2015, 1:15 am EDT).  The comet is not fading nearly as fast as predicted, and has been an excellent binocular object for the past several months, becoming near naked eye visibility.

Deep Sky Objects

The Spring stargazing season is often termed the “Realm of Galaxies”.  Most of the large galaxy clusters are visible in March and April.  In summer, the sky view is towards the center of the Milky Way (our galaxy).  In winter, the view is towards the outer spiral arms.  During spring, the view is more away from the galactic plane towards extragalactic space.  The principal constellations in which to find galaxies are nearly all of the Spring Constellations, notably Ursa Major, Leo, Coma Berenices, Virgo and Canes Venatici.  Most of these are visible in small to moderate backyard telescopes under reasonably dark skies.  Some require larger telescopes above the 10″ range.  The numbers are exhaustive,with both Messier Objects and NGC Objects well within reach of a backyard telescope. Notable popular galaxies are M51 (Whirlpool Galaxy), M87, M64 (Blackeye Galaxy), the Virgo Cluster, the Leo Triplet and many more. Consult a star chart or the internet to research further.

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