Sky offers highlights in March

Posted: Sunday, February 29, 2004

This month there are four planets dominating the evening sky with a fifth joining them later in the month. In the early evening, look for ultra-bright Venus high in the southwest. Then as evening advances, find Orion in the south with Sirius, the brightest star, to its lower left; Procyon and Castor and Pollux (the twin stars in Gemini) to its upper left; Taurus with reddish Aldebaran and the star cluster Pleiades above it; and Capella in its pentagon of Auriga almost overhead.

Watch for Saturn forming a long triangle with Castor and Pollux, now high in the south. You'll see its rings in a small telescope.

Between Venus and red Aldebaran, find another red object of a different kind: Mars.

The accompanying diagram shows the sky at about 8 p.m. All the bright stars and planets just described cluster around the word "Saturn." The Milky Way runs southeast to northwest and the cross signifies Polaris at the end of the Little Dipper. To round out this pearl string of planets, bright Jupiter in Leo becomes visible around 8 p.m. A small telescope will reveal its four large moons and perhaps its cloud bands.

Jupiter also is the one you see when driving to work in the pre-dawn hours, by which time it has moved toward the western horizon. Of course, it's Earth that has rotated that much.

Moving back, east to west through the Zodiac, we see Cancer with the beehive star cluster between Leo and Gemini (Saturn again), Taurus, then inconspicuous Aries (Mars again) and Pisces (with Venus) where we find the Great Square of Pegasus above Venus with faint comet Linear C/2002 T7 on the left side of Pegasus.

The comet's faint coma can be seen with binoculars. Comet discoveries used to be almost the sole domain of amateur astronomers because they would scan the entire sky to look at interesting objects and then more or less accidentally stumble across a huge snowball. The new comet then got a catalog number and was named after their discoverers, thus such great names such as Halley, Hyakutake, Hale-Bopp, Schwassmann-Wachmann, Temple-Tuttle, Swift-Tuttle, Shoemaker-Levy 9, Ikeya-Zhang.

An average of 50 comets per year have been found, but most of them cannot be seen by the naked eye.

Since the late 1990s, professional astronomers started looking as well mostly in conjunction of cataloging near-Earth-objects (for obvious reasons. Fortunately no hazardous ones have been detected so far). And so comets are named more and more after their team names, such as this one where Linear stands for MIT's Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research project which has discovered 133 comets so far since 1998, an average of almost two per month. So grab your binoculars and enjoy this comet.

There also are bright Vega and Deneb low in the Northwest, the Big Dipper high in the northeast with its pointer stars pointing at Polaris, the North Star. The latter is at the end of the Little Dipper's handle, 60 degrees above the Northern horizon, matching the Kenai's latitude.

Mercury can be glimpsed at month's end, probably between 8 and 9 p.m. At that time, its getting dark much later but don't wait too long because Mercury sets early still, not long after the sun. From about the March 23 through April 4, draw an imaginary line from Mars through Venus (they've closed in on each other in Taurus) to the west-of-northwest horizon to find Mercury very low. Locating the moon near Mercury would help, however, the two appear close to each other on March 21 and 22 when the moon is only one and then two days old (past new moon) and that crescent is probably impossible to glimpse during dusk. On March 29, both Mercury and Venus reach their largest separation from the sun.

The moon is full Saturday and appears next to Jupiter on the same day. It is closest and thus biggest to Earth on March 11, while it's a half moon. It's new on March 20, a waxing crescent below Venus on March 24 and to the lower right of Mars on March 25, while farthest and hence smallest as a half or first quarter moon on March 26. It finally reaches Saturn on March 28.

Meet me March 25 at the "Y" in Soldotna near River City Books from 1 to 3 p.m. to follow the moon's occultation of Mars, which is only observable from Alaska.

As days quickly are getting longer, we pass through the equinox March 19.

Andy Veh is an assistant physics professor at Kenai Peninsula College.

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