Zodiacal Light
4 years 5 months ago

Welcome to this month’s edition of Eyes on the Night Sky. March is a busy month with two full moons, a couple of star clusters to study and an opportunity to see three planets in one morning! In addition, there is a rare and beautiful phenomenon to watch out for this month if you have access to dark sites such as the light pollution-free skies of the Elan Valley.

Zodiacal light











Watch out for this beautiful phenomenon as early March is the one of the best times of the year to observe the Zodiacal Light. Moonless autumn pre-dawns and early spring/late winter nights are the best times to see it. This time of year, an hour and a half after sunset, look out for a cone-shaped glow that seems to emerge into the sky diagonally, almost as if someone is shining a bright torch into the sky. The Zodiacal light is believed to be caused by sunlight reflecting off the plane of remnant dust and ice particles from the formation of the Solar System. Because of the pristine, light pollution-free skies of the Elan Valley Dark Sky Park, the Zodiacal Light has been observed here by stargazers on various occasions. If you live under dark skies away from light pollution, you may be fortunate to be able to see it from the comfort of your own home! The image above was taken with a camera at long exposure so the Zodiacal Light won’t appear as bright to the eyes but it will be noticeable!

The Beehive Cluster or M44

Beehive Star Cluster m44

Now for an object that is pleasing to the eyes, through binoculars and small telescopes at low magnification. The Beehive Star Cluster (M44) is one of the nearest to our Solar System at around 520 light years away and contains 1000 stars. Facing south, look for the reversed question mark asterism that makes up the head of the Leo Constellation and look to the right. Also look for the head of Hydra and look up – the Beehive Cluster is directly above and you will see a small patch of light. The beauty of this object is that it can be located with the eyes in a semi-rural location. Through the binoculars the cluster fills the field of view with glittering stars. Through a three inch telescope, look for triangle-shaped groupings of stars and study the different star colours; most of them will be bluish-white but there are a few that are orange. In larger telescopes, however, the beauty of this cluster is lost as the stars separate due to greater magnification.

M3 Globular Cluster

M3 Globular Cluster
Because of the faint stars that make up the Coma Berenices constellation, this amazing Globular Cluster is a tricky one to find but rewarding. Situated halfway between Coma Berenices and Boötes (pronounced bo-oh-tees), it appears in binoculars as an out of focus star. Look in the low eastern horizon for a bright star called Arcturus and the bright star Cor Caroli in Canes Venatici. M3 is halfway between those two stars. In large binoculars and three inch telescopes, it resolves to a hazy ball with a grainy appearance. Through larger telescopes of eight inches and above, the stars around the circumference really start to pop out and a bright core is visible. If you have a twelve inch telescope, the stars are resolved to the core. Discovered by Charles Messier in 1762, it contains an impressive half million stars and is 34,000 light years away.

If you are interested in planets, there is an opportunity to study three of them plus a waning Moon in roughly the same area of sky! From 7th March from around 4:10am, Saturn rises, with Jupiter already high in the sky. The Moon, in its last quarter will muscle in on the act, followed by Mars, which will be around seven degrees above the horizon. This alignment of planets will be visible until dawn. Over the next four days, the Moon will pass over all three planets at roughly the same time until 12th March.

Remember - clocks go forward an hour in the morning of Sunday March 25th as we enter British Summertime.