Observing Highlights for March: Spring Galaxies
In North America, daylight saving time begins March 9, when we set our clocks forward one hour. Europe changes its clocks to summer time on the last Sunday in March. Much of North America has suffered through a long, cold winter and is ready for some warmer days and nights. Spring arrives with the equinox on March 20 at 9:57 a.m., which brings equal days and nights as we leave the darkness of winter and head toward the long days of summer.
Most stargazers haven’t seen much more than the brightest and easiest targets this winter, such as Jupiter, Venus, and the moon. Venus is currently in the morning sky in the constellation Sagittarius, leaving Jupiter to dominate the evening, shining from nearly overhead. Many bright stars surround Jupiter in the Winter Hexagon, including the brightest star in the sky, Sirius in the constellation Canis Major. Sirius can be found directly below Jupiter. Compare how much more brightly Jupiter shines at magnitude -2.4 than Sirius at magnitude -1.1. Although Sirius is an enormous roiling ball of fire, Jupiter’s closeness to us makes all the difference.
Look at Jupiter through a telescope to spot its brightest moons and the dark and light stripes upon its atmosphere. Watch for satellites to disappear and reappear from in front of and behind Jupiter, such as on the evening of March 5, when Ganymede reappears from behind Jupiter.
March will have two new moons, on the 1st and 30th. On March 2, look for the young crescent moon just above the western horizon at sunset. On March 7, the moon will be by the Hyades cluster in Taurus and the reddish star Aldebaran, and on March 9 and 10 the moon will sidle up to Jupiter and then pass it. The full moon for March occurs on the 16th in the constellation Virgo.
Virgo rising is a sure sign of spring. As Virgo enters the night sky, it brings with it its brightest star, Spica, along with a visitor, Mars. Mars is the brighter, redder object of the pair. March 18 will find the moon in close quarters with Spica and Mars.
Springtime is also known as galaxy season, and many island universes can be found in Virgo and its neighbor Leo. You can look at a star chart to see a huge smattering of galaxies sprinkled across spring constellations, but without some experience and dark skies, they can be a challenge to track down. Use a medium-size scope to spot some of these 8th and 9th magnitude galaxies. The Leo Triplet (NGC 3628, M65, and M66) is a popular target on the hind leg of Leo the Lion. For those with binoculars, try spotting the Coma Berenices star cluster just above the tail of Leo the Lion. These stars lie about 280 light-years away.
On March 20, the moon will rise about two degrees away from Saturn in the late evening. Saturn will rise earlier each night in spring as it makes way for the summer constellations and Milky Way nebulae that are strewn behind it.
Image: The Leo Triplet is popular member of the spring galaxies. Credit: Scott Anttila/Wikicommons
Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.