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« February 2021


The Night Sky March 2021


Compiled by Ian Morison




This page, updated monthly, will let you know some of the things that you can look out for in the night sky.  It lists the phases of the Moon, where you will see the naked-eye planets and describes some of the prominent constellations in the night sky during the month.


New(ish)

The author's: Astronomy Digest

which, over time, will provide useful and, I hope, interesting articles for all amateur astronomers.   A further aim is to update and add new material to link with the books recently published by Cambridge University Press and which are described on the home page of the digest.   It now includes over 100 illustrated articles.



Image of the Month

Rosette Nebula

The Rosette Nebula
Image: Ian Morison

The Rosette nebula is an H-alpha emission nebula in the constellation of Monocerous over to the left of Betelgeuse in Orion as shown in the author's image lower right.   The hydrogen is ionised by ultraviolet light emitted from hot stars in the open cluster NGC 2244 at its heart and, as the electrons revert back to the ground state the deep red H-alpha spectral line is emitted.   The cluster and nebula lie at a distance of 5,000 light years and measure roughly 13O light years in diameter.   The cluster stars formed about four million years ago from the nebular material and their stellar winds are clearing a hole in its center.   Around 2,500 stars make up the cluster including two massive O-type stars which are the primary cause of the ionizing radiation.

The image is a composite of a 30 second exposure to show the star field and a 50 second exposure at the H-alpha spectral line to capture the nebulosity.
Orion and Rosette Nebula

Image: Ian Morison

Highlights of the Month


March 4th - just after sunset: Mars close to the Pleiades Cluster.

Mars
Mars close to the Pleiades Cluster
Image: Stellarium/IM

After sunset on the 4th, Mars may be seen lying close to the Pleiades Cluster in Taurus.   This evening, it is at its very closest - just two and a half degrees away from the cluster's centre and shining at magnitude 1.   This is the closest Mars has been to the cluster since 2006 and it will not be this close again until 2038.

March 5th - Mercury and Jupiter in conjunction.

Jupiter
Mercury and Jupiter in conjunction
Image: Stellarium/IM

Given clear skies and a very low horizon towards the southeast, you should be able to spot Mercury separated by just 19 arc minutes from Jupiter.   Binoculars might well be needed to cut through the Sun's glare but please do not use them after the Sun has risen.

March 10th - Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn and a very thin crescent Moon.

Planets
Three planets and a crescent Moon.
Image: Stellarium/IM

Given clear skies and a very low horizon towards the southeast, you should be able to spot Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn lying above a very thin waning crescent Moon.   Binoculars might well be needed to cut through the Sun's glare but please do not use them after the Sun has risen.

March 18th - after sunset: Mars and the Moon.

Mars
Mars, the Moon and the Pleiades and Hyades open clusters.
Image: Stellarium/IM

By the 18th, Mars will have risen above the clusters but a thin, waxing, cresent Moon will lie below them.

March 25th - evening : the Moon lies in Leo.

Moon
The Moon in Leo
Image: Stellarium/IM

In the late evening the Moon, two days before full, lies in the 'Sickle' of Leo.

March 4th/5th evenings: Mons Piton and Cassini

Moon
Location of Mons Piton:IM

Mons Piton and the crater Cassini
Best seen close to third quarter, Mons Piton is an isolated lunar mountain located in the eastern part of Mare Imbrium, south-east of the crater Plato and west of the crater Cassini.   It has a diameter of 25 km and a height of 2.3 km.   Its height was determined by the length of the shadow it casts.   Cassini is a 57km crater that has been flooded with lava.   The crater floor has then been impacted many times and holds within its borders two significant craters, Cassini A, the larger and Cassini B.   North of Mons Piton can be seen a rift through the Alpine Mountains (Montes Alpes).   Around 166 km long it has a thin rille along its center.   I have never seen it but have been able to image it as can be seen in the lunar section.   NB: Cassini will lie along the terminator on the 5th so may not be visible.

Mons Piton
Mons Piton and Cassini













M109 imaged with the Faulkes Telescope

M109
Messier 109
Image: Daniel Duggan
Faulkes Telescope North.

The Galaxy M109, imaged by Daniel Duggan.
This image was taken using the Faulkes Telescope North by Daniel Duggan - for some time a member of the Faulkes telescope team.   It shows the barred spiral galaxy M109 that lies at a distance of 83 million light years in the constellation of Ursa Major.   It is the brightest galaxy in the Ursa Major group of some 50 galaxies.   Our own Milky Way galaxy is now thought to be a barred spiral like M109.

Learn more about the Faulkes Telescopes and how schools can use them: Faulkes Telescope"

















Observe the International Space Station

The International Space Station
The International Space Station and Jules Verne passing behind the Lovell Telescope on April 1st 2008.
Image by Andrew Greenwood

Use the link below to find when the space station will be visible in the next few days. In general, the space station can be seen either in the hour or so before dawn or the hour or so after sunset - this is because it is dark and yet the Sun is not too far below the horizon so that it can light up the space station. As the orbit only just gets up the the latitude of the UK it will usually be seen to the south, and is only visible for a minute or so at each sighting. Note that as it is in low-earth orbit the sighting details vary quite considerably across the UK. The NASA website linked to below gives details for several cities in the UK. (Across the world too for foreign visitors to this web page.)

Note: I observed the ISS three times recently and was amazed as to how bright it has become.

Find details of sighting possibilities from your location from: Location Index

See where the space station is now: Current Position


The Moon

3rd Quarter Moon
The Moon at 3rd Quarter. Image, by Ian Morison, taken with a 150mm Maksutov-Newtonian and Canon G7.
Just below the crator Plato seen near the top of the image is the mountain "Mons Piton".   It casts a long shadow across the maria from which one can calculate its height - about 6800ft or 2250m.
`
new moon first quarter full moon third quarter
March 13th March 21st March 28th March 6th

Some Lunar Images by Ian Morison, Jodrell Bank Observatory: Lunar Images

A World Record Lunar Image

World record Lunar Image
The 9 day old Moon.

To mark International Year of Astronomy, a team of British astronomers have made the largest lunar image in history and gained a place in the Guinness Book of Records!   The whole image comprises 87.4 megapixels with a Moon diameter of 9,550 pixels.  The resolution of ~0.4 arc seconds allows details as small as 1km across to be discerned!   The superb quality of the image is shown by the detail below of Plato and the Alpine Valley.  Craterlets are seen on the floor of Plato and the rille along the centre of the Alpine valley is clearly visible.  The image quality is staggering! The team of Damian Peach, Pete lawrence, Dave Tyler, Bruce Kingsley, Nick Smith, Nick Howes, Trevor Little, David Mason, Mark and Lee Irvine with technical support from Ninian Boyle captured the video sequences from which 288 individual mozaic panes were produced.   These were then stitched together to form the lunar image.

Plato and the Alpine valley
Plato and the Alpine Valley.

Please follow the link to the Lunar World Record website and it would be really great if you could donate to Sir Patrick Moore's chosen charity to either download a full resolution image or purchase a print.









The 8 day old Moon

Lunar Image
The 8 day old Moon imaged by Ian Morison.

This image was taken by the author on a night in March 2018 when the Moon was at an elevation of ~52 degrees and the seeing was excellent.   This enabled the resolution of the image to be largely determined by the resolution of the 200 mm aperture telescope and the 3.75 micron pixel size of the Point Grey Chameleon 1.3 megapixel video camera.   The use of a near infrared filter allowed imaging to take place before it was dark and also reduced the effects of atmospheric turbulence.   The 'Drizzle' technique developed by the Hubble Space Telescope Institute (HSTI) was used to reduce the effective size of the camera's pixels to allow the image to be well sampled.   Around 100 gigabytes of data, acquired over a 2 hour period, was processed to produce images of 54 overlapping areas of the Moon which were then combined to give the full lunar disk in the free 'stitching' program Microsoft ICE.   A further HSTI development called 'deconvolution sharpening' was then applied to the image.   The Moon's disk is ~6,900 pixels in height and has a resolution of 0.6 to 0.7 arc seconds.   Interestingly, as seen in the inset image, the rille lying along the centre of the Alpine Valley is just discernable and this is only ~0.5 km wide!   [Due to size limitations the large image is 2/3 full size.]









The Planets

 A montage of the Solar System
A montage of the Solar System. JPL / Nasa

Jupiter

Jupiter
A Cassini image of Jupiter . Nasa

Jupiter. As March begins and given a very low horizon towards the south-southeast Jupiter, rising at 06:30 UT, may be glimpsed just before dawn shining at magnitude -2 having an angular size of 33 arc seconds.   By month's end, it rises at 05:42 UT, about an hour before the Sun when its magnitude will have increased slightly to -2.1 and its angular size to 34.7 arc seconds.   Sadly, its low elevation will greatly hinder our view of the solar system's giant planet.



Saturn

Saturn
The planet Saturn. Cassini - Nasa

Saturn preceeds Jupiter and Mercury into the sky, rising at 06:00 UT on the 1st when the three planets make a nice grouping.   Again, a very low horizon towards the south south-east will be needed to see them.   It is then shining with a magnitude of +0.7 and its disk is 15.4 arc seconds across.   By month's end it rises at 05:12 BST with a slightly increased brightness of magnitude +0.8 and 15.9 arc second disk.   We will have to wait a while to see this most beautiful planet at its best.




Mercury

Mercury.
Messenger image of Mercury Nasa

Mercury passed in front of the Sun on the 5th of February and is now visible in the south-southeast before sunrise on the 1st of the month shining at magnitude +0.2 and with an angular size of 7.8 arc seconds.   It follows Saturn and preceeds Jupiter into the sky.   It forms a nice grouping with Jupiter and Saturn as described in the highlight above.   On the 6th March it reaches greatest elongation west, some 27.3 degrees from the Sun but, as the ecliptic is at a low angle to the horizon, it is still at a low elevation and so difficult to spot.






Mars

Mars showing Syrtis major.
A Hubble Space Telescope image of Mars.
Jim Bell et al. AURA / STScI / Nasa

Mars passed into Taurus on the 24th of February, close to the Pleiades open cluster and is closest, some 2.5 degrees away, on the 4th of the month.   Shining at magnitude 1, it lies within a 5 degree binocuar field of view of the Pleiades Cluster until the 11th.   This is the closet Mars has been to the Pleiades cluster since 2006 and it will not be until 2038 for it to pass this close again.   Mars will be best seen soon after nightfall and will still be visible in the evening sky until August before it passes behind the Sun in October.




Venus

Venus
Venus showing some cloud structure

Venus is heading towards superior conjunction on the 27th of March so will remain hidden from our view for some time.





The Stars

The Early Evening March Sky

March-early evening
The March Sky in the south - early evening.

This map shows the constellations seen in the south during the early evening. The brilliant constellation of Orion is seen in the south. Moving up and to the right - following the line of the three stars of Orion's belt - brings one to Taurus; the head of the bull being outlined by the V-shaped cluster called the Hyades with its eye delineated by the orange red star Aldebaran. Further up to the right lies the Pleaides Cluster. Towards the zenith from Taurus lies the constellation Auriga, whose brightest star Capella will be nearly overhead. To the upper left of Orion lie the heavenly twins, or Gemini, their heads indicated by the two bright stars Castor and Pollux. Down to the lower left of Orion lies the brightest star in the northern sky, Sirius, in the consteallation Canis Major. Up and to the left of Sirius is Procyon in Canis Minor. Rising in the East is the constellation of Leo, the Lion, with the planet Saturn up and to the right of Regulus its brightest star. Continuing in this direction towards Gemini is the faint constellation of Cancer with its open cluster Praesepe (also called the Beehive Cluster),the 44th object in Messier's catalogue. On a dark night it is a nice object to observe with binoculars. There is also information about the constellation Ursa Major,seen in the north, in the constellation details below.

The Late Evening March Sky

FebruarySky
The March Sky in the south - late evening.

This map shows the constellations seen in the south around midnight.

The constellation Gemini is now setting towards the south-west and Leo holds pride (sic) of place in the south with its bright star Regulus. Between Gemini and Leo lies Cancer. It is well worth observing with binoculars to see the Beehive Cluster at its heart. Below Gemini is the tiny constellation Canis Minor whose only bright star is Procyon. Rising in the south-east is the constellation Virgo whose brightest star is Spica. Though Virgo has few bright stars it is in the direction of of a great cluster of galaxies - the Virgo Cluster - which lies at the centre of the supercluster of which our local group of galaxies is an outlying member.

The constellation Gemini

Gemini
Gemini

Gemini - The Twins - lies up and to the left of Orion and is in the south-west during early evenings this month. It contains two bright stars Castor and Pollux of 1.9 and 1.1 magnitudes respectivly. Castor is a close double having a separation of ~ 3.6 arc seconds making it a fine test of the quality of a small telescope - providing the atmospheric seeing is good! In fact the Castor system has 6 stars - each of the two seen in the telescope is a double star, and there is a third, 9th magnitude, companion star 73 arcseconds away which is alos a double star! Pollux is a red giant star of spectral class K0. The planet Pluto was discovered close to delta Geminorum by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. The variable star shown to the lower right of delta Geminorum is a Cepheid variable, changing its brightness from 3.6 to 4.2 magnitudes with a period of 10.15 days

Gemini
M35 and NGC 2158
This wonderful image was taken by Fritz Benedict and David Chappell using a 30" telescope at McDonal Observatory. Randy Whited combined the three colour CCD images to make the picture

M35 is an open star cluster comprising several hundred stars around a hundred of which are brighter than magnitude 13 and so will be seen under dark skies with a relativly small telescope. It is easily spotted with binoculars close to the "foot" of the upper right twin. A small telescope at low power using a wide field eyepiece will show it at its best. Those using larger telescopes - say 8 to 10 inches - will spot a smaller compact cluster NGC 2158 close by. NGC 2158 is four times more distant that M35 and ten times older, so the hotter blue stars will have reached the end of their lives leaving only the longer-lived yellow stars like our Sun to dominate its light.

Gemini
The Eskimo Nebula, NGC2392, Hubble Space Telescope

To the lower right of the constellation lies the Planetary Nebula NGC2392. As the Hubble Space Telescope image shows, it resembles a head surrounded by the fur collar of a parka hood - hence its other name The Eskimo Nebula. The white dwarf remnant is seen at the centre of the "head". The Nebula was discovered by William Herschel in 1787. It lies about 5000 light years away from us.

The constellation Leo

Leo
Leo

The constellation Leo is now in the south-eastern sky in the evening. One of the few constellations that genuinely resembles its name, it looks likes one of the Lions in Trafalger Square, with its main and head forming an arc (called the Sickle) to the upper right, with Regulus in the position of its right knee. Regulus is a blue-white star, five times bigger than the sun at a distance of 90 light years. It shines at magnitude 1.4. Algieba, which forms the base of the neck, is the second brightest star in Leo at magnitude 1.9. With a telescope it resolves into one of the most magnificent double stars in the sky - a pair of golden yellow stars! They orbit their common centre of gravity every 600 years. This lovely pair of orange giants are 170 light years away.

Leo also hosts two pairs of Messier galaxies which lie beneath its belly. The first pair lie about 9 degrees to the west of Regulus and comprise M95 (to the east) and M96. They are almost exactly at the same declination as Regulus so, using an equatorial mount, centre on Regulus, lock the declination axis and sweep towards the west 9 degrees. They are both close to 9th magnitude and may bee seen together with a telescope at low power or individually at higher powers. M65 is a type Sa spiral lying at a distance of 35 millin klight years and M66, considerably bigger than M65, is of type Sb. Type Sa spirals have large nuclei and very tightly wound spiral arms whilst as one moves through type Sb to Sc, the nucleus becomes smaller and the arms more open.

M65 and M66
The galaxies M65 and M66
M65 M66
M65 - Type Sa spiral, 9.3 magnitude M66 - Type Sb spiral, 8.9 magnitude

The second pair of galaxies, M95 and M96, lie a further 7 degrees to the west between the stars Upsilon and Iota Leonis. M95 is a barred spiral of type SBb. It lies at a distance of 38 million light years and is magnitude 9.7. M96, a type Sa galaxy, is slightly further away at 41 million light years, but a little brighter with a magnitude of 9.2. Both are members of the Leo I group of galaxies and are visible together with a telescope at low power.

M95 and M96
The galaxies M95 and M96
M95 M96
M95 - Type SBb spiral, 9.7 magnitude M96 - Type Sa spiral, 9.2 magnitude

There is a further ~9th magnitude galaxy in Leo which, surprisingly, is in neither the Messier or Caldwell catalogues. It lies a little below lambda Leonis and was discovered by William Herschel. No 2903 in the New General Catalogue, it is a beautiful type Sb galaxy which is seen at somewhat of an oblique angle. It lies at a distance of 20.5 million light years.

NGC2903
The 8.9th magnitude, type Sb, Galaxy NGC2903

The constellation Virgo

Virgo
Virgo

Virgo, rising in the east in late evening this month, is not one of the most prominent constellations, containing only one bright star, Spica, but is one of the largest and is very rewarding for those with "rich field" telescopes capable of seeing the many galaxies that lie within its boundaries. Spica is, in fact, an exceedingly close double star with the two B type stars orbiting each other every 4 days. Their total luminosity is 2000 times that of our Sun. In the upper right hand quadrant of Virgo lies the centre of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies. There are 13 galaxies in the Messier catalogue in this region, all of which can be seen with a small telescope. The brightest is the giant elliptical galaxy, M87, with a jet extending from its centre where there is almost certainly a massive black hole into which dust and gas are falling. This releases great amounts of energy which powers particles to reach speeds close to the speed of light forming the jet we see. M87 is also called VIRGO A as it is a very strong radio source.

M87 MERLIN images
The Giant Elliptical Galaxy M87 HST image showing the jet

Below Porrima and to the right of Spica lies M104, an 8th magnitude spiral galaxy about 30 million light years away from us. Its spiral arms are edge on to us so in a small telescope it appears as an elliptical galaxy. It is also known as the Sombrero Galaxy as it looks like a wide brimmed hat in long exposure photographs.

The Sombrero Galaxy
M104 - The Sombrero Galaxy

The constellation Ursa Major

Ursa Major
Ursa Major

The stars of the Plough, shown linked by the thicker lines in the chart above, form one of the most recognised star patterns in the sky. Also called the Big Dipper, after the soup ladles used by farmer's wives in America to serve soup to the farm workers at lunchtime, it forms part of the Great Bear constellation - not quite so easy to make out! The stars Merak and Dubhe form the pointers which will lead you to the Pole Star, and hence find North. The stars Alcor and Mizar form a naked eye double which repays observation in a small telescope as Mizar is then shown to be an easily resolved double star. A fainter reddish star forms a triangle with Alcor and Mizar.

Ursa Major contains many interesting "deep sky" objects. The brightest, listed in Messier's Catalogue, are shown on the chart, but there are many fainter galaxies in the region too. In the upper right of the constellation are a pair of interacting galaxies M81 and M82 shown in the image below. M82 is undergoing a major burst of star formation and hence called a "starburst galaxy". They can be seen together using a low power eyepiece on a small telescope.

M81 and M82
M81 and M82

Another, and very beautiful, galaxy is M101 which looks rather like a pinwheel firework, hence its other name the Pinwheel Galaxy. It was discovered in1781 and was a late entry to Messier's calalogue of nebulous objects. It is a type Sc spiral galaxy seen face on which is at a distance of about 24 million light years. Type Sc galaxies have a relativly small nucleus and open spiral arms. With an overall diameter of 170,000 light it is one of the largest spirals known (the Milky Way has a diameter of ~ 130,000 light years).

M101
M101 - The Ursa Major Pinwheel Galaxy

Though just outside the constellation boundary, M51 lies close to Alkaid, the leftmost star of the Plough. Also called the Whirlpool Galaxy it is being deformed by the passage of the smaller galaxy on the left. This is now gravitationally captured by M51 and the two will eventually merge. M51 lies at a distance of about 37 million light years and was the first galaxy in which spiral arms were seen. It was discovered by Charles Messier in 1773 and the spiral structure was observed by Lord Rosse in 1845 using the 72" reflector at Birr Castle in Ireland - for many years the largest telescope in the world.

M51
M51 - The Whirlpool Galaxy

Lying close to Merak is the planetary nebula M97 which is usually called the Owl Nebula due to its resemblance to an owl's face with two large eyes. It was first called this by Lord Rosse who drew it in 1848 - as shown in the image below right. Planetary nebulae ar the remnants of stars similar in size to our Sun. When all possible nuclear fusion processes are complete, the central core collpses down into a "white dwarf" star and the the outer parts of the star are blown off to form the surrounding nebula.

Owl Nebula Owl Nebula
M97 - The Owl Planetary Nebula Lord Rosse's 1848 drawing of the Owl Nebula