Ok, if the clouds should happen to depart for a while (and here’s Kendal’s Met check to see if and when they might), here’s a brief roundup of what might be visible in the skies this month:
The Comet Lulin remains high in the sky pleasing astronomers outside of our little cloud nursery. Although it will rise higher and earlier in the sky this month, the comet will also fade in brightness fast, going from nearly visible to the naked eye in excellent conditions at the moment to something around sixteen times dimmer, visible only through a good telescope. Observing in the early part of the month will give the best chance of seeing this visitor in a small telescope or binoculars, to find it, use a finder chart such as this one at Cumbrian Sky.
The Antihelion Source is a rather impressive name for a source of meteors. It should provide a couple of meteors every now and again from the radiant, which is moving into Virgo by the end of the month (the bit of the sky in the south at midnight, hence antihelion, or antisunward). Those that have managed to see the comet recently (including myself) have been reporting these meteors, and they’re nice and bright.
The asteroid Ceres (largest of the belt asteroids) passes through Leo minor this month. Ceres was at opposition in February (closest approach to the Earth) and so is fading in brightness now. It appears as an out of place star in binoculars at the beginning of the month, but fades to a more difficult to see object later in the month.
Mercury hides behind the Sun this month, making a difficult to observe planet impossible to observe. Jupiter is similarly badly placed, but starts to appear low in the southern horizon at dawn. On the 17th of March, all the four Galilean moons of Jupiter line on to the west of the planet during the morning. On the 27th, at around 05:42:57 (at a rough guess), the moon Callisto occults the moon Ganymede, giving a good idea of how fast these things move. Uranus can be written off altogether this month, Mars and Neptune both appear in the very early morning at the end of the month, close to the horizon at sunrise.
Saturn, at least, continues to shine on in the sky, just beneath Leo. Its rings are almost edge on during this month, making them difficult to see (though as of last week, they still make an impressive bar of light). The moons of Saturn will be seen moving in front and behind the planet during this month, with transits of shadows of moons particularly visible in good telescopes. On the 8th of March, Saturn will be at Opposition, making it especially bright – though not enough to cut through thick clouds…
Venus takes advantage of being one of the few things happening outside of Leo. Shining bright in the evening sky, the overall size of the disc of Venus grows during this month, but the phase of Venus grows closer and closer to a ‘new Venus’, with only a very thin crescent by the end of the month as the planet moves between us and the Sun on the 27th and then out again during the morning hours at the very end of the month.
A few things outside the solar system
Algol, also known as the Demon Star, is visible in the constellation of Perseus. The brightness of the star changes so that it grows three times brighter and then dims again in just under three days. This is due to Algol actually being two stars, one of which passes in front of the other, dimming the system down. The eclipses last around ten hours, with the middle five hours containing the most noticeable changes in brightness. Minima of these eclipses, most favourable for our viewing, will occur at: 0:42hours on the 1st; 21:30 on the 3rd; 5:36 on the 18th; 2:24 on the 21st and 23:12 on the 23rd.
Lambda Tauri is another eclipsing binary star, this time in Taurus, but with a less pronounced dip in brightness and spread over a longer period of time (just under four days). The eclipses last about 14 hours. Favourable minima this month include: 23:30 on the 2nd; 22:24 on the 6th and 21:30 on the 10th.
The Usual Stuff
If you want to watch satellites flaring or passing in the sky (even sometimes during the day), then go to Heavens Above to get times and directions. If you need assistance in deciding where things are in the sky, why not install the free program Stellarium, which does all the work for you? Finally, to avoid the dreaded clouds, Met Check gives a quick forecast and the Met satellites or other satellites can be used to track breaks in the cloud, if you are truly determine to catch that comet (or even the moon at this rate)…
As part of the International Year of Astronomy 2009, the Eddington Society will be laying to rest the memory of the Venus watch with a public observing event – Saturn Watch, close to the time of Opposition on Friday the 6th from 9pm at Bowling Fell. This is round the corner from my place, so I may even be sticking my telescope in the mud with the rest of them. Either way, I’ll be there.
On the 28th, the Spring MoonWatch begins, lasting until the 5th of April. This is one of a couple of weeks when the Moon is in a favourable position for detail to be seen on the surface. Too close to new Moon and there’s nothing lit up, too close to the full Moon and there’s no shadow to bring out detail. As part of the International Year of Astronomy and the telescopes for schools initiative, the Society for Popular Astronomy has organised these country-wide watches to give everyone the chance to see… well… probably clouds.
We can but try…