Late March sky tour
A new moon marks the last week in March which also means it’s a good time to get out and do some observing. Having a new moon means our only natural satellite is on the same side of the Earth as the sun so we will not see it throughout the night. Without that moonlight and minimal light pollution, we will have the dark skies necessary to see some of the more distant and fainter objects with a telescope. With the help of inverted color diagrams from Starry Night Software, let’s take a tour across the southern skies in late March from west to east.
Around 8 p.m., facing west, low in the sky we will find the planet Mercury in the constellation Pisces closely following the sun, which has already moved below the horizon. Not far behind, in the constellation Aries, Mars appears as a rust colored “star” just a little above and to the left of Mercury. You will need an unobstructed view of the horizon to see both of them. Along with Mars and Mercury, there are a number of bright stars we can use to help us navigate the constellations and find the objects we want to see in our telescope. One of the easier things to identify in the southwest sky is the three stars in a line that make up the “belt” in the constellation Orion. Within Orion we can find Betelgeuse, the bright star with a slight reddish appearance almost directly above the belt. Also belonging to Orion is the bright blue-white star known as Rigel, found below Orion’s belt. Aldebaran is a bright star in the constellation Taurus and is found just to the right of Betelgeuse. Moving farther to the left and closer to the horizon is the brightest star in our night sky, Sirius. Sirius belongs to the constellation Canis Major (Big Dog) and is sometimes referred to as the “Dog Star.”
Looking up above Sirius, the first bright star you see is Procyon in the constellation Canis Minor and above that almost directly overhead are the heads of Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux, with the latter being the brighter of the two. Moving to the left (eastward) from Procyon, we can find Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo. As we face toward the east, we will see the planet Jupiter just rising over the horizon in the constellation Virgo.
Now that we have identified some brighter stars and planets, we can use them to help us navigate our telescope to the nebulae, star clusters and galaxies that are scattered across the night sky. Almost due west, to the right of the star Aldebaran (Taurus), the Pleiades star cluster with its bright, blue-white stars is easy to see without a telescope. A pair of objects requiring only binoculars or a small telescope is the Great Orion Nebula located just below Orion’s belt and the Praesepe, which is an open star cluster in the constellation Cancer that can be found between the stars Regulus (Leo) and Pollux (Gemini). If you are up for a challenge, there is a supernova remnant above Aldebaran known as the Crab Nebula. It is very faint and will require a telescope to see it.
Everything we’ve discussed here is within our own galaxy. As with the Crab Nebula, galaxies beyond our Milky Way can be challenging to locate,but if you are up for that challenge, we can help. Point your telescope to the east-southeast sky. The star Regulus is above and to the right of the constellations Virgo and Coma Berenices, which contain a collection of galaxies known as the Virgo Cluster of galaxies. As the night progresses, they will climb into the southern sky. Depending on the telescope you use, most of them will range from little fuzzy spots to identifiable shapes. Keep in mind, just finding them in the telescope is a treat but if you are looking for immediate satisfaction, there’s always Jupiter with its four largest moons viewable with just binoculars. It can be found rising with Virgo in the east, but if you have trees or other obstructions on your eastern horizon, it’s probably not visible until after 10 p.m.
Just seeing the stars and other objects through a telescope is an experience in itself, but to understand what you are looking at can greatly enhance that experience. The volunteers at the Adirondack Public Observatory are on hand to answer questions and provide information, making your visit to the APO much more satisfying. The Roll Off Roof Observatory is open to the public on the first and third Fridays of each month until Memorial Day, approximately on half-hour after sunset. Whether you’re an avid amateur astronomer or just starting out, come and view through our telescopes and learn about the Wilderness Above. For updates and notices, check out our website at adirondackpublicobservatory.org and our Facebook page. On our public observing days, you can also call the RORO at 518-359-6317 to talk with one of our astronomers. Observing starts about one half-hour past sunset.