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The Night Sky March 2014

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.

Image of the Month

The Opportunity Rover on Mars

Opportunity Rover

Opportunity Rover 10 years on.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State University.

On January 25th 2004, the Opportunity Rover landed on the surface of Mars and began its exploration.   The original mission plan was for just three months but, over 10 years later it is still operational and activly exploring the Martian surface.   Dust devils crossing the surface of Mars have helped remove dust from the flat solar panel array, but in comparison to the inset image from 2004 one can see that, now, more dust lies on them so reducing their efficiency.   Opportunity has driven 24 miles from its landing site and now rests at Solander Point on the rim of Endevour Crater.

Highlights of the Month

March - still a great month to view Jupiter.

Jupiter imaged by Damian Peach

Jupiter is now well past opposition but this is a still a good month to observe this giant of planets.   It now lies Gemini and so is high in the ecliptic and hence, when due south, at an elevation of ~60 degrees and is high in the sky in the early evening.   Though Jupiter's angular size falls from ~42 down to ~38 arc seconds throughout the month, a small telescope can see lots of details - surely one should be on your shopping list if you do not have one!   It is looking somewhat different than in the last few years as the north equatorial belt has become quite broad.   The Great Red Spot has recently become more prominent and can be easily seen as a large feature in the South Equatorial Belt.

The features seen in the Jovian atmosphere have been changing quite significantly over the last few years - for a while the South Equatorial Belt vanished completely (as seen in Damian's image) but has now returned to its normal wide state.   The diagram on right shows the main Jovian features as imaged by the author at the beginning of December 2012.   The highlight below gives the times when the GRS is facing us.

The image by Damian Peach was taken with a 14 inch telescope in Barbados where the seeing can be particularly good.   This image won the "Astronomy Photographer of the Year" competition in 2011.

See more of Damian Peach's images: Damian Peaches Website"

Jovian Features
Features in Jupiter's atmosphere - December 2013.

March: Look for the Great Red Spot on Jupiter

Great Red Spot
Observe the Great Red Spot
Image: NASA

This list gives some of the best evening times during March to observe the Great Red Spot which should then lie on the central meridian of the planet.

1st   22:00         20th 22:44

3rd   23:39         23rd 20:15

6th   21:09        

11th 20:18        

13th 21:57        

15th 23:35      

18th 21:06

March - after sunset: Spot the Perseus Double Cluster and observe a minima of the "Demon Star", Algol.

The Perseus Double Cluster and Algol
Image: Stellarium/IM

In the early evening the constellations Cassiopeia and Perseus will be high in the west.   If one follows the line of the Milky Way from Cassiopeia over to the left towards Perseus with a pair of binoculars a misty patch will be seen which is due to two beautiful open clusters forming what is called the Perseus Double Cluster.   This is a lovely sight in a small telescope!   Down to the left of the brightest star in Perseus, called Mirphak, is the star Algol which has been called the "Demon Star" as it sometimes apperas to "wink".   Algol is what is called an "occulting binary" where the two stars alternately occult each other so that the overall brighness drops.   The magnitude drops from its usual value of 2.1 down to 3.4 and back over the space of a few hours.   Minima of Algol may be seen on the 13th of March at 00:19 (i.e., just after midnight on the 12th) and the 15th of March at 21:09, 3.87 days later.

March 1st to 6th - evening: spot Pallas - a large asteroid

Minor Planet Pallas
Image: Stellarium/IM

Minor planet (2), Pallas moves northwards through Hydra (and briefly through Sextans) during March being close to the 2nd magnitude star Alphard between the 1st and 6th.   It will then be some 4 degrees over to the left of Alphard, shining with a magnitude of ~7 so should be easily visible in binoculars.   Try to spot its movement over a few nights.   Pallas is the second largest minor planet after Ceres in the main Asteroid Belt and is around 550 km across.   On the 22nd of February it was just over twice as far from the Sun as the Earth.   Incidently, should the diameter of an object be greater than 800 km, then gravity will make it spherical and it will now be classed as a dwarf planet.   This is the case with Ceres.

March 18th - around 11 pm: Mars less than 4 degrees from the Moon

Mars and the Moon
Image: Stellarium/IM

Looking southeast around 11pm on the evening of the 18th, Mars, in Virgo, will be seen just less than four degrees to the left of the Moon just two days after full.   The Moon will be just over one degree to the left of Spica making a nice tight grouping to observe with binoculars.

March 20th - around midnight: Saturn less than 2 degrees from the Moon

Saturn and the Moon
Image: Stellarium/IM

Looking southeast around midnight on the evening of the 18th, Saturn, in Libra, will be seen just less than two degrees to the left of the waning Moon.

March 27th - one hour before dawn: Venus below a waning crescent Moon

Venus with a waning Moon
Image: Stellarium/IM

Before dawn on the 27th, Venus will be seen less than 3 degrees below a thin crescent waning Moon.   The Moon and Venus will thus be both visible in the field of view of a pair of binoculars and this might well provide a very good photo opportunity.

March 9th and 21st: The Alpine Valley

Alpine Valley
Alpine Valley region

An interesting valley on the Moon: The Alpine Valley
These are two good nights to observe an interesting feature on the Moon if you have a small telescope.  Close to the limb is the Appenine mountain chain that marks the edge of Mare Imbrium.   Towards the upper end you should see the cleft across them called the Alpine valley.   It is about 7 miles wide and 79 miles long.   As shown in the image is a thin rill runs along its length which is quite a challenge to observe.  The dark crater Plato will also be visible nearby.   You may also see the shadow cast by the mountain Mons Piton lying not far away in Mare Imbrium.   This is a very interesting region of the Moon!

The Alpine Valley
The Alpine valley and the crater Plato

M16, the Eagle nebula, imaged with the Faulkes Telescope

Messier 16 - The Eagle Nebula
Image: Daniel Duggan
Faulkes Telescope North.

The Eagle Nebula, M16, 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 is a region of dust and gas where stars are now forming.   The ultraviolet light from young blue stars is stripping the electrons from hydrogen atoms so this region contains ionized hydrogen and is called an HII region.   As the electrons drop back down through the hydrogen energy levels as the atoms re-form, red light at the H alpha wavelength is emitted.   This "true colour" image is composed of red, green and blue images along with a narrow band H alpha image.   A Hubble image of the central region, called the "Pillars of Creation", has become quite famous but looks green/blue in colour.   This is a false colour image where the H alpha image has been encoded as green!

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 last quarter
March 1st & 30th March 8th March 16th March 24th

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 9550 pixels. This 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 Planets

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

Jupiter is now well placed in the evening sky towards the end of an excellent apparition.


A Cassini image of Jupiter . Nasa

Jupiter. This month Jupiter is a little past its best and should be viewed soon after night fall when it is closest to the meridian and so highest in the sky at over 60 degrees elevation.   Shining at magnitude -2.4, it is visible for much of the evening and early morning.   By month's end Jupiter will be due south at ~8:30 pm.   Jupiter is lying in the constellation Gemini initially moving westwards in retrograde motion towards the star Mebsuta, Epsilon Geminorum, but on March 6th it resumes its eastwards motion across the sky.   As a result it spends the month about 2 degrees below and to the left of Mebsuta.   With a small telescope you can observe the 4 Gallilean moons as they weave there way around it and, at times, be also able to pick out the Great Red Spot visible as an indentation of the South Equatorial belt.

See the highlights above.


The planet Saturn. Cassini - Nasa

Saturn rises at about midnight at the start of the month and at about 10:30 pm at its end.   Lying in Libra, it is shining with a magnitude of +0.4 (increasing to +0.3) and its disk has a diameter of 17.4 (increasing to 18.4) arc seconds.   Saturn reaches a stationary point on March 3rd and then begins its retrograde motion across the sky.   The really good news is that the rings (with a diameter of 38 arc seconds) have now opened to around 23 degrees from the line of sight so presenting a magnificant view.   With a small telescope one should be able to spot the Cassini Division that lies between the A and B rings and with a telescope of ~200 mm aperture the Enke Gap towards the edge of the A ring might be seen when the seeing is good.   Sadly for those of us in the northern hemisphere, Saturn is now lying in the more southerly part of the ecliptic so, even at opposition, its elevation does not get that high.   Even worse, this will not improve for many years to come.


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

Mars, lying in Virgo, rises around 10 pm at the start of the month and about two hours earlier at month's end.   Its brightness increases dramatically during the month from +0.5 to -1.3 with its angular size increasing from 11.6 to to 14.6 arc seconds as it moves towards opposition on April 8th.   So now, given good seeing, it is possible to see markings on its salmon-pink surface (~91% illumonated) such as the polar caps and Syrtis Major.   The north polar region is tilted towards us by ~19 degrees so North Polar Cap should be particularly prominent.   Mars is in Virgo and, at the start of the month is just under 6 degrees to the left of Spica - Alpha Virginis.   It ends the month 5 degrees up and a little to the left of Spica in its westwards retrograde motion across the sky.

See the highlight above.


Messenger image of Mercury Nasa

Mercury reaches its greatest elongation west (that is, furthest in angular separation over to the right of the Sun) of 18 degrees on March 14th and seen best about half an hour before sunrise.   However, from our northerly locations the ecliptic at this time of year is at such a shallow angle to the horizon that it will be at a very low elevation.   On the 14th, the angular size of its ~50% illuminated disk will be ~7.5 arc seconds.   Its brightness brightes from +0.8 to -0.1 during the month.   To be honest, not the best time to observe Mercury.


Venus showing some cloud structure

Venus reaches greatest elongation west from the Sun on March 22nd.   But again, due to the shallow angle of the ecliptic to the horizon this month it will not be far above the horizon on this date, ~15 degrees.   During the month, Venus dims from magnitude -4.8 to -4.4 whilst its angular diameter shrinks from 33 to 22 arc seconds and the illumination phase increases from 36& to 54%.

See the highlight above.

Radar Image of Venus
Radar image showing surface features

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

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 - 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

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.

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


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.

The 8.9th magnitude, type Sb, Galaxy NGC2903

The constellation 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 - 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 - 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