Exploring Our Night Sky - March 2020

Image courtesy of Steven Marshall Photography www.smarshall.photography

Spring arrives this month, with the Vernal equinox on 20 March and then Daylight-Saving Time starts on 29 March. This all means that the nights become shorter and shorter and it gets dark a lot later in the evening. However, don’t be put off by this as there is still much to see, from a very bright Venus lighting up the western skies after sunset, to the trio of Jupiter, Mars and Saturn rising just before dawn.

The Constellations

If you look South this month, you will still see the winter constellations of Orion, Taurus, Auriga and Gemini that were described in on our “Exploring Our Night Sky” blog for February. Bear in mind that they will have moved a little bit to the west. Also, you will now be able to see some of the spring constellations coming into view. The most significant of these is Leo, which is high up in the south-east..

Image Credit: Till Credner

To get your bearings, its easiest to find the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, which sits between south and south-west in the first few hours after dark. From it you can find the two other stars that make up the asterism called the Winter Triangle. These are Betelgeuse (in Orion) to the top right of Sirius and Procyon (in Canis Minor) to its top right.

If you extend the line from Betelgeuse and Procyon towards the left, you will find Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo (The Lion). Regulus is at the bottom of a backwards question-mark which is made up of 6 stars and called The Sickle. This asterism is the back of The Lion’s head and the six stars in it are Epsilon Leonis, Mu Leonis, Zeta Leonis, Gamma Leonis, Eta Leonis, and Alpha Leonis. Follow a line left and slightly up from Regulus and you’ll come to Denebola. This forms the bright tip of The Lion’s tail and its name comes from the Arabic for lion’s tail.

If you have a very dark sky, you may be able to find the constellation of Cancer, the Crab. It can be difficult to find as it is made up of faint stars, but trace a line between Regulus and Pollux (in Gemini – see February’s page) and you’ll find it about half way between the two. Just off to the right of its centre is the Beehive Cluster, which is also known as Praesepe (Latin for "manger"). It’s a reasonably bright cluster of over 1000 stars that resembles a bee swarm and about a dozen or so of these stars are visible through binoculars. You may even see them with the naked eye if the conditions are right.

Looking North, the thing to bear in mind is that the constellations you see do not change from month to month, it is only their orientation that changes. You can find the seven stars of the Plough up in the north-east and you can use its two right-hand stars to find the Pole Star, Polaris, which is always in the same position in the sky. Just follow the line between them for about five times its length and you’ll arrive at it.

Once you’ve found Polaris, you can use it to get your bearings on any night, but bear in mind that all the northern constellations rotate around it in an anticlockwise direction and therefore change their position. It is also worth noting that Polaris is not that bright, with it being about the same brightness as the stars of the Plough. Its significance comes from it being directly above our North Pole.

The Moon

The moon is at its first quarter (a half moon) on 2 March and will be close to the Pleaides (The Seven Sisters) and on 6 March, it moves across the top of the Beehive Cluster (see above) between 8pm and midnight.

On 9 March, we have a full moon that will be at its closest point to Earth (222,081 miles), making it look bigger and brighter than normal. This is the second of 4 supermoons in 2020, but it won’t be the largest. In fact, the largest supermoon of the year will be on 8 April.

The last quarter moon (a half moon) is on 16 March. Then, on the morning of 18 March, at about 5 am, you’ll see a crescent moon sitting next to a bright Jupiter, with Mars in between them. The following morning, the moon will be sitting below Saturn.

There is a new Moon (no moon) on the 24 March. If it’s clear on 25 March, look low in the south-west at about half an hour after sunset and you might spot a very thin crescent Moon. It’ll be easier to see on 26 March and on 28 March the crescent moon will be lying next to Venus, with the Pleiades (star cluster) above and Aldebaran (a star, which is the eye of Taurus) and the Hyades (star cluster in Taurus) to the upper left.

The Planets

As with last month, it is a great time to see the bright planets. These are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn and are called such because you can see them with the naked eye.

If you look to the south-west as it’s getting dark, Venus will be the first thing that you see. It is particularly bright just now as it is moving towards its closest point to earth and will reach this on 28 April. At that point, it will be at its brightest it next moves to its closest point to earth during March 2028. At the start of the month, Venus sets at about 10pm and by the end of the month it will be visible until after midnight.

The other 4 bright planets will be visible in the morning, although it will be difficult to see Mercury as it will be submerged in the glow of dawn and, if it isn’t, you’ll probably need binoculars to see it as it rises above the horizon in the south-east. The other 3 planets will all be visible in the south east at around 5:30 am. At the start of the month, you’ll see Mars, Jupiter and Saturn all in a line from right to left. This changes on 20 March when Mars moves left past Jupiter and again on 31 March when it moves left past Saturn.

Meteor Showers

We are in a quiet period for meteor showers, until the Lyrid meteor becomes active on 16 April. It will peak on the night of 21-22 April when there will be little or no moon, so if we have clear skies, it should be a good show.

This monthly summary first appeared on https://www.rockpoolhouse.co.uk/march-stargazing.html.

It was written by Steven Marshall, owner of Steven Marshall Photography and Rockpool House Holiday Apartment. He offers landscape and night photography tuition to visitors on the Peninsulas and has various photographic prints, calendars, cards and other merchandise for sale at his studio at Rockpool House. He also enjoys taking his guests at Rockpool House on a tour of the night sky.

If you’d like to share what you love about the area on our website, please feel free to get in touch by email at web@westhighlandpeninsulas.com.

Posted on 2nd March 2020, by Steven Marshall.

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