Astronomy Guide to the night sky, March 2024

Astronomy

AN INTRODUCTION TO THE NIGHT SKY – MARCH 2024

With the Newbury Astronomical Society

The chart above shows the night sky looking south at about 21:00 GMT on 15th March

The chart above shows the night sky looking south at about 20:00 GMT on 15th March.  West is to the right and east to the left.  The point in the sky directly overhead is known as the Zenith and is shown (in red) at the upper centre of the chart.  The curved brown line across the sky at the bottom is the Ecliptic or Zodiac.  This is the imaginary line along which the Sun, Moon and planets appear to move across the sky.  The brightest stars often appear to form a group or recognisable pattern; we call these ‘Constellations’.

Constellations through which the ecliptic passes this month are Aquarius (the Water Carrier), Pisces (the Fishes), Aries (the Ram), Taurus (the Bull), Gemini (the Twins), Cancer (the Crab), Leo (the Lion) and Virgo (the Virgin).

The centre of the chart will be the position in the sky directly overhead, we called this the Zenith and it is marked with a red cross and the word Zenith on the chart.  Around the edge of the chart the Cardinal Points of the Compass are marked in red.  South is at the bottom, North at the top, East to the left and West to the right.  We generally observe to the south because any visible planets and the Moon are always in the southern part of the sky.

The Pole Star Polaris in the constellation of Ursa Minor (the Little Bear) is the only star in the sky that does not move so it is very useful.  The Pole Star Polaris can be easily found by first finding the familiar shape of the Great Bear ‘Ursa Major’ that is also sometimes called the Plough or even the Big Dipper by the Americans.  Ursa Major is visible throughout the year and is always quite easy to find.  This month it is located almost directly overhead.

On the chart, above, look for the distinctive saucepan shape.  It has four stars forming the bowl and three stars forming the handle.  Follow an imaginary line (indicated by the yellow arrow), up from the two stars in the bowl furthest from the handle.  These will point the way to Polaris which will be to the north of overhead (the Zenith) at about 50º above the northern horizon.  Polaris is the only moderately bright star in a fairly empty patch of sky.  When you have found Polaris turn completely around and you will be facing south.

Nicely positioned in the south is the constellation of Taurus (the Bull).  The most obvious star in Taurus is the lovely Red Giant Star called Aldebaran.  It appears slightly orange to the ‘naked eye’ but it is very obviously orange when seen using binoculars or a telescope.  Aldebaran is located at the centre of the ‘flattened’ X shape formed by the brightest stars in Taurus.  At the end of the top right (upper west) arm of the ‘X’ is the beautiful ‘naked eye’ Open Star Cluster Messier 45 (M45) known as the Pleiades (or the Seven Sisters).  It really does look magnificent using binoculars.

Following Taurus is the constellation of Gemini (the Twins).  The two brightest stars in Gemini are Castor and Pollux and they are named after mythological twins.

To the south of Taurus and Gemini is the spectacular constellation of Orion (the Hunter).  Orion is one of the few constellations that does look (with a little imagination) like what it is named after.  The most obvious feature is the line of three stars, called Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka that make up Orion’s belt.  From his belt we can see two bright stars called Saiph and Rigel below.  These define the bottom of his ‘skirt like’ tunic.  Above the belt are two stars Betelgeuse and Bellatrix that denote the position of his shoulders.

Above and between his shoulders is a little group of stars that mark out the head.  From his right shoulder (Bellatrix) he holds out a shield.  From his left shoulder (Betelgeuse) a club is held above his head.  It almost looks as if Orion is fending off the charge of the great bull Taurus who is located above and to the west (right) of Orion.

Down from Orion’s very distinctive belt there is a line of stars, ending at the star Nair al Saif that looks very much like a sword attached to his belt.  Here can be found the main interest in Orion, the Great Nebula Messier 42 (M42).Orion is one of the best known constellations and hosts some of the most interesting objects for us amateur astronomers to seek out.  Orion is one of the few constellations that does look (with a little imagination) like what it is named after.  The most obvious feature is the line of three stars, called Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka that make up Orion’s belt.  The sky surrounding the constellation of Orion is explored in this month’s Newbury Astronomical Society Monthly Magazine.

WHERE TO FIND THE PLANETS THIS MONTH

MERCURY was at its Superior Conjunction with the Sun on 28th February (this was when it appeared to pass behind the Sun).  It will continue to move eastward (left) past the Sun and into the evening sky through this month.  It will be at its best for observing on 24th March just above the western horizon after sunset.

VENUS Venus is not so well placed this month and rises just half an hour before the Sun at 05:45.  It is bright and will be easy to find but it will require a clear view to the eastern horizon.  Venus is now moving ever closer to the Sun and is heading towards its Superior Conjunction (passing behind the Sun from our point of view) on 4th June.  It is now appearing as gibbous crescent.

MARS is currently located on the other side of the Sun so is almost as far away as it can be and consequently appears very small.  It is also close to the Sun in the sky so is very difficult to see and almost impossible to find.

JUPITER is still in a good position for observing for most of the evening as soon as it gets dark.  Jupiter will be at its best position for observing as soon as it is dark when it is in the south west as the Sun is setting over the western horizon.  The four brightest (Galilean) moons will be visible and some of the cloud markings are visible even using a smaller telescope.

SATURN has now disappeared over the western horizon and will not be observable again until the autumn.

URANUS is just observable using binoculars or a small telescope this month.  A larger telescope will make Uranus brighter and enhance the bluish colour to make it easier to identify.  It rises in the east in the morning at 08:00.  Uranus will be best seen soon after sunset when it is quite high in the south west and close to Jupiter.

NEPTUNE will be setting in the west at 20:00 and is now moving over the western horizon and will not be observable again until later in the summer.

NEPTUNE will be setting in the west at 20:00 and now moving over the western horizon and will not be observable again until later in the summer.

Direct link to full observing guide February 2024: Whats_Up_March_2024.pdf – Google Drive

To read our monthly magazine click on: March 2024 Magazine

Link to Newbury Astronomical Society website: Home – Newbury Astronomical Society

Our next meeting will be at Stockcross Village Hall on Wednesday 20th March 2024 starting at 19:00 until 21:00.

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