Dark Skies March Update
With March comes the spring equinox, the time of year when on or around the 21st, the day and night are of equal length with the sun rising due east and setting due west. From here on, we can look forward to lengthening daylight and shortening nights until mid June.
At this time of the year as soon as it becomes dark, the constellation of Orion is prominent almost due south. Virtually overhead (zenith), is the bright yellow star Capella, a star fairly similar to our own sun. Grab a pair of binoculars and slowly sweep down the Milky Way from Capella to the left of Orion. Although at its faintest in this part of the celestial sphere, there are plenty of star clusters and knots of bright nebulae to take in along the way.
Rising in the eastern sky is the bright planet Jupiter, which will be with us for many months to come. It will be joined by a couple of other planets in a few months time but for a while, it will be the sole bright solar system body on show in the evening skies.
Just above and to the right of Jupiter lies the bright star Regulus, the main star in the constellation of Leo the Lion. The head is made up of stars in the shape of a sickle or reverse question mark with Regulus at the base. Just to the right of the sickle is the area of sky that one of the two comets currently on show can be found in. Comet Ikeya-Murakami is only visible in binoculars I’m afraid, as is its partner in crime comet Catalina, which is passing through Perseus. Sky charts are below for those interested in tracking down these elusive visitors to our neighbourhood. The two other planets visible in the sky - Saturn and Mars - are both still morning objects and not seen until around 2.00 hours, rising low in the south-east sky.
March is also a quiet time for meteors as there are no major active showers during the month. Like in February, there are just the sporadic meteors that can appear in any part of the sky.
There is one “rarer” celestial phenomenon that may well be visible in the coming weeks however, the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. Although directly connected to activity on and in the sun, (and this activity is slowly declining), historically speaking the time of year around the equinoxes does seem to favour auroral events. Keep your eyes on the northern horizon and if you're lucky, and in the right place at the right time, you may witness one of nature's truly spectacular free shows.
Good luck and clear skies to all.