Upstate New York Stargazing – March, 2018

Upstate NY Stargazing in March: 2 full moons, Venus and Mercury after sunset

The best-of-winter constellations over Baltimore Woods in Marcellus, NY. The bright star at lower-center is Sirius in Canis Major. To its right and up, the belt of Orion, the five-star "V" of Taurus, and the Pleiades star cluster near the image edge. (Photo by Damian Allis)

Published: Mar. 01, 2018, 5:26 p.m.

By Damian Allis

There were a few evenings this past February that were unexpectedly comfortable for the time of year, hopefully giving observers some unexpectedly long opportunities to take in some of the busiest regions of our nighttime sky.

To have the grouping of the Winter Hexagon – Orion, Taurus, Auriga, Gemini, Canis Minor, and Canis Major – out and about at such reasonable hours means that anyone can see not only the brightest grouping of bright stars in our yearly sky, but also some of the closest groups of stars. The Hyades star cluster, made up of the "V" of the head of Taurus the Bull – but not including the bright eye star Aldebaran – is our closest star cluster at 150 light years. Just to the northwest of the Hyades lies the second-closest bright cluster of stars to our Solar System – Pleiades.

If you can find the Pleiades and the patch of stars under Orion's Belt, you can even scratch two of the 110 Messier Objects off of your list. The history and some key details of the Messier Objects were discussed in the March 2017 article. In brief – these are the bright galaxies, star clusters, and nebulae that can all be found with little more than a quality pair of binoculars, dark skies, a good star chart, and a big cup of coffee. The time around mid-March and early-April is the only time of the year when, if you start VERY soon after sunset, you can find all 110 of these objects before sunrise the next morning. Astronomy clubs the world over often plan marathons as a group – these are great opportunities to learn from seasoned amateurs as well as to see how the same object may look in many different binoculars and telescopes.

The 110 Messier Objects through high-quality optics.

Lectures And Observing Opportunities In Upstate/Central New York

New York has a number of astronomers, astronomy clubs, and observatories that host public sessions throughout the year. Announced sessions from respondent NY astronomy organizations are provided below for March. As wind and cloud cover are always factors when observing, please check the provided contact information and/or email the groups a day-or-so before an announced session, as some groups will also schedule weather-alternate dates. Also use the contact info for directions and to check on any applicable event or parking fees. And bring one more layer of clothing than you think you are going to need!

Astronomy Events Calendar

OrganizerLocationEventDateTimeContact Info
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper Lake1st Friday ObservingMar. 27:30 PMemail, website
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper Lake3rd Friday ObservingMar. 167:30 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyAAAA MeetingMar. 157:30 – 9 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyNight Sky AdventureMar. 207 – 8:30 PMemail, website
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterMember MeetingMar. 27:30 – 9:30 PMemail, website
Baltimore WoodsMarcellusGoodbye Winter SkiesMar. 166 – 9 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingMar. 27 – 9 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalKAS Monthly MeetingMar. 77 – 9 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingMar. 97 – 9 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingMar. 167 – 9 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingMar. 237 – 9 PMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervillePublic Star GazingMar. 107:30 – 10:30 PMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervilleMeeting and LectureMar. 147:30 – 9 PMemail, website

Lunar Phases

Full MoonThird QuarterNew MoonFirst QuarterFull Moon
Mar. 1, 7:51 pmMar. 9, 6:19 amMar. 17, 9:11 amMar. 24, 11:35 amMar. 31, 8:36 am
The lack of a Full Moon in February means a double Full Moon in March this year, spaced on the 1st and 31st. Those keeping track will note that the Full Moon on the 31st is the second Blue Moon of 2018. The Vernal Equinox, or beginning of Spring, on the 20th is paired with a thin crescent Moon in the western sky.

Lunar features prominent in low-power binoculars.

The lack of a Full Moon in February means a double Full Moon in March this year, spaced on the 1st and 31st. Those keeping track will note that the Full Moon on the 31st is the second Blue Moon of 2018. The Vernal Equinox, or beginning of Spring, on the 20th is paired with a thin crescent Moon in the western sky.

Observing Guides

Items and events listed below assume you're outside and observing most anywhere in New York. The longer you're outside and away from indoor or bright lights, the better your dark adaption will be. If you have to use your smartphone, find a red light app or piece of red acetate, else set your brightness as low as possible.

The sky at 9 p.m. on Mar. 15, accurate all month except for the changing Moon position.

Evening Skies: The Winter Triangle – Sirius in Canis Major, Procyon in Canis Minor, and Betelgeuse in Orion – shares an edge with the much larger Winter Hexagon – Sirius, Procyon, Pollux in Gemini, Capella in Auriga, Aldebaran in Taurus, and Rigel in Orion. As these two work their way to the west earlier each night this month, binocular observers can spare themselves some neck strain while looking at the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus and the cloudy Orion Nebula below Orion's belt. Both are excellent targets at low- and high-power magnification.

With Orion and its cohort all above the horizon before midnight, learning eight constellations at once is as easy as following some lines within Orion's bowtie asterism.

Orion can guide you around its neighborhood. Red = belt stars to Sirius and Canis Major; Orange = Rigel and belt center to Castor and Pollux in Gemini; Yellow = Bellatrix and Betelgeuse to Canis Major; Green = Belt stars to Aldebaran and Taurus; Blue = Saiph and Orion's head to Capella in Auriga.Click for a larger view.

Morning Skies: The Summer Triangle has fully cleared the horizon for early risers, giving observers a chance to perfect their late-evening summertime observing of the many binocular and telescope objects within the band of our Milky Way. Off the corner star Vega, the keystone of Hercules may stand out to you – a pair of binoculars will reveal the great globular cluster Messier Object 13 off the southwest corner star. More information about Hercules can be found in the Oct. 2016 article. The rest of the morning highlights belong to the planets Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter to the south.

Moving from the Little Dipper to the Big Dipper, continue nearly the same distance to reach the hind end of Leo the Lion – look to the west for the backwards question mark that is its mane. Following the handle of the Big Dipper, one can simply "arc" their way to the first bright star in that path – the star Arcturus in Bootes.

The sky at 5 a.m. on Mar. 15, accurate all month except for the changing Moon position.

Planetary Viewing

The changing positions of Venus and Mercury in the western sky after sunset at mid-month, including the alignment of Venus and Mercury with the Moon on March 18.

Mercury and Venus: This is a fantastic month for those who favor the inner planets. Venus is unmissable along the western horizon after sunset right now and will appear higher in the sky each night this month. If you train your binoculars on Venus over the next few days after sunset and place it in the upper left-hand corner, you can already sneak a view of Mercury, which will appear as a much dimmer pinpoint of light. Mercury rises higher this month, reaching its observing peak on Mar. 17/18 before its orbit makes it set earlier each night out into April. The best night for binocular observers will be Mar. 18th, when Mercury and Venus line up almost perfectly with a sliver-of-a-crescent moon.

The path of the Moon in the morning sky from Mar. 7 to 11, showing its morning pairings with Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn.

Mars, Jupiter and Saturn: Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter all clear the eastern horizon well before sunrise this month, with Jupiter taking a healthy lead within the constellation Libra. Mars spends the first third of the month in Ophiuchus before settling into Sagittarius with Saturn. The Moon makes for several nice pairings with all three planets during the first full week of March on its way to New Moon.

Mars flies across our edge-on view of the center of the Milky Way this month. If you scan anywhere near Mars with binoculars, you may see some occasional fuzzy patches that do not come into focus like the pinpoint stars also within your field of view – these nebulae are among the list of Messier Objects for your finding and observing pleasure. On the 19th, Mars will be surrounded by Messier 8 below and M20 and M21 above – all well in the field of view of binoculars.

Those with even poor-quality binoculars are able to see the four bright satellites of Jupiter – known as the "Galilean Moons" for their first observer – and the appearance of Jupiter as a disc of light instead of a simple pinpoint like all stars. Many websites, including the Jupiter's Moons webapp at Sky & Telescope, can provide you with the real-time and future positions of the fast-moving moons for any viewing opportunity you get this and every month.

When the weather doesn't cooperate, the NASA Juno mission (tw,fb) continues to impress with hard science and beautiful images.

ISS And Tiangong-1 Flyovers

Satellite flyovers are commonplace, with several bright passes easily visible per hour in the nighttime sky, yet a thrill to new observers of all ages. Few flyovers compare in brightness or interest to the International Space Station. The flyovers of the football field-sized craft with its massive solar panel arrays and three current occupants can be predicted to within several seconds and take several minutes to complete.

The ISS is a morning target this month until the 23rd, when it returns to the early-evening skies into early April. Observers are treated to pairs of flyovers several times in the next few weeks, provided you wake up early enough to catch the first of the two.

ISS Flyovers

DateBrightnessApprox. StartStart Direct.Approx. EndEnd Direct.
3/1extremely5:34 AMSW5:40 AME/NE
3/2extremely4:44 AMSE4:48 AME/NE
3/3somewhat3:54 AME3:55 AME
3/3extremely5:27 AMW5:32 AMNE
3/4extremely4:37 AMNE4:39 AMNE
3/5somewhat3:47 AME/NE3:47 AME/NE
3/5very5:19 AMNW5:23 AMNE
3/6very4:29 AMN/NE4:31 AMNE
3/7somewhat3:39 AMNE3:39 AMNE
3/7very5:11 AMNW5:15 AMNE
3/8moderately4:21 AMN/NE4:23 AMNE
3/8moderately5:55 AMNW6:00 AMNE
3/9moderately5:03 AMN/NW5:07 AMNE
3/10moderately4:13 AMN/NE4:14 AMNE
3/10moderately5:47 AMNW5:52 AME/NE

As mentioned in last month's article, the unmanned Chinese Tiangong-1 space station is about to fall back to Earth. The previous estimates of a fiery re-entry around mid-March have been updated to somewhere in the late-March-to-mid-April range. We hopefully won't have *too* good a view of its re-entry, but can still catch it in its orbits right now thanks to up-to-date tracking predictions.

Tiangong-1 Flyovers

DateBrightnessApprox. StartStart Direct.Approx. EndEnd Direct.
3/2very dim6:48 PMS/SW6:51 PMSE
3/3dim6:39 PMSW6:42 PME/SE
3/4dim6:30 PMSW6:34 PME
3/7dim7:33 PMW7:35 PMW
3/8somewhat7:23 PMW7:25 PMS/SW
3/9somewhat7:12 PMW7:15 PMS/SE
3/10dim7:01 PMW7:04 PMSE
3/11dim7:49 PMW7:53 PMSE

Predictions courtesy of heavens-above.com. Times later in the month are subject to shifts – for accurate daily predictions, visit spotthestation.nasa.gov.

No Major Meteor Showers This Month

As has been discussed in previous articles, meteor showers are the result of the Earth passing through the debris field of a comet or asteroid. While the orbits of scores of these objects bring them close to Earth's orbit, a limited number produce enough debris to produce significant meteor shower activity. February and March mark yearly lulls in major meteor shower activity, with the next prominent shower being the Lryids that occur in April.

The astronomy community recognizes many minor showers that are predictable in their timing and are predictably unimpressive. Those interested in seeing a full list should check out the American Meteor Society meteor shower calendar.

Learn A Constellation: Taurus (Again)

Taurus in the western sky after sunset this month.

In last month's article, we considered the most "logical" reason for there being 12 zodiacal constellations, a mathematical basis that originates with the Babylonians. It is likely that their system of mathematics was itself inspired entirely by their astronomical observations and need to establish a more definitive way to mark the changing months. Once a civilization grows so large as to rely on mass-organized agriculture to keep itself fed, knowing how to follow the changing seasons and plan the next harvest becomes a very important driver in getting organized!

The year is almost exactly 365 days long, a number that lies quite close to 360. 360 is, of course, the product of 12 and 30, with 12 having been described last month as an excellent measuring stick for its ability to be divided into smaller pieces with the numbers 2, 3, 4, and 6. The lunar cycle of a little under 30 days occurs 12 times in a solar year with just under 12 full days to spare. It is hard to imagine these prominent occurrences of the number 12 and 30 in the celestial mechanics of the day not having a great influence on the scientists of the day – just as its hard to imagine that some were not completely vexed by the fact that nothing in the skies above occurred exactly in whole numbers. The artificial addition of some whole-number quantity into the night sky in the form of 12 zodiacal constellations to follow the Sun, Moon, and five wandering stars that we know today as the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn must have come as a great relief to the scribes of the day upon their introduction.

The next constellation in our evening walk around the zodiac is Taurus the Bull, already described in detail in the December 2016 article. There's strong evidence that the first representation of this constellation as a large-horned bull goes back around 17,500 years, as represented in a cave painting found in Lascaux, France. That this representation may predate our more common Egyptian/Greek/Roman origins for the most prominent groupings of stars in the sky by many millennia is one of the great joys of astronomy. Thanks to the very slow changing positions of the stars in our celestial neighborhood, every one of your ancestors with decent vision and the curiosity to look up in wonder has seen these same basic groupings over that past several tens of thousands of years.

The Crab Nebula at various wavelengths, each showing tremendous detail and information about what lies within.

Just off one of the horn stars is the supernova remnant known as the Crab Nebula – designated Messier 1 (M1). This Messier is of all kinds of historical significance. When the associated star ended in an explosive display in May of 1054 A.D., Chinese and Middle Eastern astronomers recorded it as a daytime-observable object. Almost 700 years later, astronomer John Bevis observed the nebulous remains of this supernova explosion. The name "Crab Nebula" comes from William Parsons in his 1840 observations, where its shape and defining features looked to him like a crab.

Dr. Damian Allis is the director of CNY Observers and a NASA Solar System Ambassador. If you know of any other NY astronomy events or clubs to promote, please contact the author.

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Upstate New York Stargazing – February, 2018

Author's Note: The "Upstate New York Stargazing" series ran on the newyorkupstate.com and syracuse.com websites (and limited use in-print) from 2016 to 2018. For the full list of articles, see the Upstate New York Stargazing page.

Upstate NY Stargazing in February: Morning planets and early notice of a doomed space station

The "prediction" of where the Tiangong-1 space station will fall back to earth. Yellow region equals highest probability. The statisticians at Aerospace Corp. predict that your chance of winning the Powerball that week is one-million times greater than of your being struck by falling debris.(.)

Published: Feb. 01, 2018, 5:27 p.m.

By Damian Allis

At some point, pretty soon, a Chinese space station is going to crash-land somewhere, likely somewhere half-way up north or down south of the equator – somewhere between the land and water spanned by New York and southern Argentina, Northern Italy and below the Cape of Good Hope, or northern Japan and southern New Zealand. Is that non-specific enough?

The above image, produced by Aerospace Corporation, sums up the uncertainty in location. The timing is equally fuzzy, with estimates for the approach and disintegration of the Chinese Tiangong-1 space station ranging from mid-to-late March. The Tiangong-1 is China's first attempt at their own space station – set for two years of operation when launched in 2011 to test all the core mechanics of bringing up humans and other payload. With two separate launches of three crew members each, the Tiangong-1 served its ultimate purposes and was finally decommissioned in early 2016. It was the amateur satellite tracking community that noticed the Tiangong-1 was not quite following its expected orbit, with the Chinese Space Agency eventually acknowledging that the station was not under their control and would eventually fall back to Earth.

Saudi inspectors examining a crash-landed PAM-D module in 2001.

The chances of any parts of the Tiangong-1 hitting a populated area during its return is extremely small. In the eyes of the space science and space mission communities, the fall back to Earth of the Tiangong-1 is far favorable to the other obvious solution – destroying the station in orbit. The Chinese did this in 2007 with a successful anti-satellite missile test on a Fengyun-1C weather satellite, producing a debris cloud that accounts for over half the "space junk" tracked by NASA and other agencies. While space is big, this and other space debris can be moving many miles per second – a threat large enough that even the International Space Station sometimes has to change its orbit slightly to get out of the way of something big enough to do real damage.

Lectures And Observing Opportunities In Upstate/Central New York

New York has a number of astronomers, astronomy clubs, and observatories that host public sessions throughout the year. Announced sessions from respondent NY astronomy organizations are provided below for February. As wind and cloud cover are always factors when observing, please check the provided contact information and/or email the groups a day-or-so before an announced session, as some groups will also schedule weather-alternate dates. Also use the contact info for directions and to check on any applicable event or parking fees. And bring one more layer of clothing than you think you are going to need!

Astronomy Events Calendar

OrganizerLocationEventDateTimeContact Info
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper Lake1st Friday ObservingFeb. 27:00 PMemail, website
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper Lake3rd Friday ObservingFeb. 167:00 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyAAAA MeetingFeb. 157:30 – 9 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyNight Sky AdventureFeb. 207 – 8:30 PMemail, website
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterMember MeetingFeb. 27:30 – 9:30 PMemail, website
Baltimore WoodsMarcellusFinest Winter SkiesFeb. 165:30 – 8 PMemail, website
Baltimore WoodsMarcellusSolar Viewing ProgramFeb. 241 – 3 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingFeb. 27 – 9 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalKAS Monthly MeetingFeb. 77 – 9 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingFeb. 97 – 9 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingFeb. 167 – 9 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalWinter Star PartyFeb. 177 – 9 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingFeb. 237 – 9 PMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervilleMeeting and LectureFeb. 147:30 – 9 PMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervillePublic Star GazingFeb. 177:30 – 10 PMemail, website
Syracuse Astronomical SocietySyracuseLecture @ OCC & ObservingFeb. 167 – 9 PMemail, website

Lunar Phases

Full MoonThird QuarterNew MoonFirst QuarterFull Moon
Jan. 31, 8:26 amFeb. 7, 10:53 amFeb. 15, 4:05 pmFeb. 23, 3:09 amMar. 1, 7:51 pm

The Moon's increasing brightness as Full Moon approaches washes out fainter stars, random meteors, and other celestial objects – this is bad for most observing, but excellent for new observers, as only the brightest stars (those that mark the major constellations) and planets remain visible for your easy identification. If you've never tried it, the Moon is a wonderful binocular object. The labeled image identifies features easily found with low-power binoculars.

Lunar features prominent in low-power binoculars.

The excitement over two supermoons in January and two not-super-but-still-pleasant full moons in March was bound to come at some price. In our case, we will pass through February without a Full Moon – the first time in 19 years. This is an entirely predictable event, with the Greek astronomer Meton calculating back in the fifth century B.C.E. that the Moon goes through a nearly-19-year cycle before lining up again with the solar year. February is not without some lunar excitement, as a partial solar eclipse will be had on the 15th. Sadly for us, this will only be visible over the southern region of South America and Antarctica.

Observing Guides

Items and events listed below assume you're outside and observing most anywhere in New York. The longer you're outside and away from indoor or bright lights, the better your dark adaption will be. If you have to use your smartphone, find a red light app or piece of red acetate, else set your brightness as low as possible.

The sky at 9 p.m. on Feb. 15, accurate all month except for the changing Moon position.

Evening Skies: The Winter Triangle – Sirius in Canis Major, Procyon in Canis Minor, and Betelgeuse in Orion – shares an edge with the much larger Winter Hexagon – Sirius, Procyon, Pollux in Gemini, Capella in Auriga, Aldebaran in Taurus, and Rigel in Orion. Both asterisms are due-south and as high as they will get in the nighttime sky during the early evening, making them both easy finds. Those recovered from last month's comment thread can still find Uranus in the evening sky, although it sets earlier each night, becoming a more difficult binocular object in the process.

With Orion and its cohort all above the horizon before midnight, learning eight constellations at once is as easy as following some lines within Orion's bowtie asterism.

Orion can guide you around its neighborhood. Red = belt stars to Sirius and Canis Major; Orange = Rigel and belt center to Castor and Pollux in Gemini; Yellow = Bellatrix and Betelgeuse to Canis Major; Green = Belt stars to Aldebaran and Taurus; Blue = Saiph and Orion's head to Capella in Auriga. IClick for a larger view.

Morning Skies: Early risers are treated to a welcome sight for many – the Summer Triangle fully clears the eastern horizon before sunrise. Over the next several months, it will rise earlier each night until mid-Summer, when it sits high in the sky above us during late-evening observing hours. The one thing you might not see for several more weeks is the band of the Milky Way Galaxy, which runs through the body of Cygnus the Swan. A little more distance between Cygnus-rise and sunrise is needed to keep dawn from washing out the galactic nebulosity.

Moving from the Little Dipper to the Big Dipper, continue nearly the same distance to reach the hind end of Leo the Lion – look to the west for the backwards question mark that is its mane.

The sky at 5 a.m. on Feb. 15, accurate all month except for the changing Moon position.

Planetary Viewing

Mercury and Venus: The two inner planets spend this month awash in our daylight and will be just barely visible on the western horizon at sunset on the 28th. Starting in early March, the two will make a close pairing a bit later after sunset, ideal for binocular observing.

Mars, Jupiter and Saturn: Mars.

The path of Mars away from Jupiter and towards Saturn this month.

Early risers this past December were treated to a dance involving Venus, Mars, and Jupiter. While bright Venus is on its way to being an evening target right now, we have gained ringed Saturn as a new morning target that will slowly go from a morning-to-midnight-to-evening target over the next nine months. Saturn is just clearing the eastern horizon before sunrise this month and will be a difficult target for the first few weeks, after which it joins Mars and Jupiter as an easy observing target. Jupiter in Libra and Saturn in Sagittarius move so slowly that they appear stationary this month. This leaves Mars as the swift mover, passing from Scorpius to Ophiuchus in early February and remaining there until mid-March, when it joins Saturn in Sagittarius.

The Moon makes for three bright morning groupings with Mars and Jupiter.

Those with even poor-quality binoculars are able to see the four bright satellites of Jupiter – known as the "Galilean Moons" for their first observer – and the appearance of Jupiter as a disc of light instead of a simple pinpoint like all stars. Many websites, including the Jupiter's Moons webapp at Sky & Telescope, can provide you with the real-time and future positions of the fast-moving moons for any viewing opportunity you get this and every month.

When the weather doesn't cooperate, the NASA Juno mission (tw,fb) continues to impress with hard science and beautiful images.

ISS And Tiangong-1 Flyovers

Satellite flyovers are commonplace, with several bright passes easily visible per hour in the nighttime sky, yet a thrill to new observers of all ages. Few flyovers compare in brightness or interest to the International Space Station. The flyovers of the football field-sized craft with its massive solar panel arrays and six current occupants can be predicted to within several seconds and take several minutes to complete.

ISS Flyovers

DateBrightnessApprox. StartStart Direct.Approx. EndEnd Direct.
2/1moderately6:41 PMW/NW6:44 PMN/NE
2/2very5:48 PMW/NW5:53 PMNE
2/2moderately7:25 PMNW7:26 PMN/NW
2/3moderately6:33 PMNW6:36 PMN/NE
2/4moderately7:17 PMNW7:19 PMN/NW
2/5moderately6:25 PMNW6:28 PMNE
2/5somewhat8:01 PMNW8:01 PMNW
2/6very7:09 PMNW7:11 PMN
2/7very6:16 PMNW6:21 PME/NE
2/7moderately7:52 PMW/NW7:53 PMW/NW
2/8extremely7:00 PMNW7:03 PMNE
2/9extremely6:08 PMNW6:13 PME
2/9moderately7:44 PMW/NW7:46 PMW
2/10extremely6:51 PMW/NW6:56 PMSE
2/11extremely5:59 PMNW6:05 PME/SE
2/11moderately7:36 PMW7:39 PMS/SW
2/12moderately6:43 PMW/NW6:49 PMS/SE
2/14somewhat6:36 PMW6:39 PMS/SW

For February and March, we're including flyover predictions for Tiangong-1, expected to fall back to Earth sometime in March. While not nearly as bright as the ISS – until it hits atmosphere – we will have several flyovers in the next few weeks, after which predictions become increasingly less accurate.

Tiangong-1 Flyovers

DateBrightnessApprox. StartStart Direct.Approx. EndEnd Direct.
2/6very dim6:31 AMS6:33 AME/SE
2/7dim6:27 AMS/SW6:31 AME
2/8dim6:24 AMSW6:28 AME
2/9dim6:20 AMW/SW6:25 AME
2/10somewhat6:17 AMW/SW6:21 AME
2/11somewhat6:14 AMW6:18 AME
2/12somewhat6:11 AMW6:14 AME

Predictions courtesy of heavens-above.com. Times later in the month are subject to shifts – for accurate daily predictions, visit spotthestation.nasa.gov.

While we can only speculate as to the reason why, the removal of CNY native Jeanette Epps from the next ISS Expedition crew has not gone unnoticed in the local and global media, and certainly not to the local astronomy community. Many of us await details about expedition rescheduling in hopes for news of a future launch to the ISS that is both heroic and historic.

No Major Meteor Showers This Month

As has been discussed in previous articles, meteor showers are the result of the Earth passing through the debris field of a comet or asteroid. While the orbits of scores of these objects bring them close to Earth's orbit, a limited number produce enough debris to produce significant meteor shower activity. February and March mark yearly lulls in major meteor shower activity, with the next prominent shower being the Lryids that occur in April.

The astronomy community recognizes many minor showers that are predictable in their timing and are predictably unimpressive. Those interested in seeing a full list should check out the American Meteor Society meteor shower calendar.

Learn A Constellation: Aries

Aries, in the western sky after sunset this month.

In last month's article, we used a plate-in-dining room analogy for the Solar System to explain why we see all of the observable planets passing through the twelve Zodiacal constellations. Throughout most of human history, the nighttime sky was divisible into only three parts – the large Moon and its changing phases, the countless stars that all seemed to move as one, and five bright stars that all moved at different speeds with respect to this backdrop of fixed stars – these five being the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The stars of the Zodiac served as markers of the planetary paths and measuring sticks by which to measure the speeds of these five wandering stars.

A question that often comes up in discussions of the Zodiacal constellations is "why 12?" Depending on how much time you spend in search engines and how much credence you give to both astronomical and astrological sources, you may find a wide range of answers. One reason comes from the history of "12" itself and the system of mathematics developed by the Babylonians, from which we still divide our hours into 60 minutes, our minutes into 60 seconds, and our circles into 360 degrees. 12 is divisible by 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 – making it easy for the ancient temple mathematicians and field workers alike to divide quantities into the most important day-to-day fractions – one-half (6/12), one-third (4/12), one-quarter (3/12). This ease of handing the most significant fractions by dividing a fixed quantity into 12 equal pieces is also a reason why we still have 12 inches to a foot on our rulers.

The Babylonian math system is about as practical a system as one could imagine developing for a society that placed so much focus on the heavens above. If the solar year were only 360 days long instead of 365.25 days long, and the time between New Moons was exactly 30 days long instead of 29.53, one could imagine the Babylonians feeling their understanding of the heavens to be complete. In many ways, we owe these small differences – and the resulting frustration of the temple elders of the time who had to account for these small differences – a debt of gratitude for forcing civilizations to develop new physical models of how the most prominent objects in the sky actually behaved, leading us down the path to where our much more advanced understanding is today.

In fitting with the short month, we next look at the least-impressive of the Zodiacal constellations. As one of the 12 markers for the path of the bright planets, Aries the Ram has existed for nearly as long as humans have been recording the nighttime sky. First recordings of the brightest stars in Aries go back to the Babylonians, then follow the other prominent constellations through the familiar Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Arab traditions on through to present day. Placed between Taurus in the west and Pisces in the east, Aries is well-placed in the western sky for late-evening observers in February.

Its two most prominent stars are easy catches, but it is probably easiest to find the stars of Aries by first finding the head of Taurus the Bull – the bright star Aldebaran marks one of the corners of the winter Hexagon, and the Winter Triangle even marks the direction you need to look if you use Betelgeuse as the tip of an arrow. The star Hamal is at the very bottom of the list of the 50 brightest stars in the sky, and Hamal and Sheratan easily fit in the same field of view in low-power binoculars. That said, there is little else to see in Aries under low magnification, with many of the most interesting stars and galaxies only visible through good telescopes.

Dr. Damian Allis is the director of CNY Observers and a NASA Solar System Ambassador. If you know of any other NY astronomy events or clubs to promote, please contact the author.

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