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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Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Taurus

As first appeared in the November 2009 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

This month's constellation is one of the best in the Night Sky for combining ancient tradition, mythology, modern astronomy, world history, stellar eye candy, and even modern engineering into one reasonably small bordered pen of celestial real estate. The early evening sight of the constellation Taurus the Bull in the November southeast sky at Darling Hill might appear to CNY viewers as a snow divining rod pointing to the western Great Lakes in anticipation of winter and the upcoming lake-effect snow. Taurus is a distinctive constellation and very easy to identify once its central asterism is identified. The brightest star in the constellation is almost equidistant from the easily identified Pleiades and the shoulder of the constellation Orion, the celestial hunter Taurus is running from as the sky appears to move (or, from the most commonly drawn orientation, right towards him!). While Taurus is mildly sparse in quantity when it comes to dark sky objects, it more than makes up for it in quality, hosting two of the most significant stellar sights in the Night Sky.

Like its neighbor Orion, Taurus the Bull is a very, very old constellation and has been recognized as a bull for the duration of its existence in Middle Eastern and European traditions. Earliest records of any kind place the birth of Taurus in the Copper (Chalcolithic) Age (4500 – 3500 B.C.E.), although some records support its existence even earlier. The presence of a bull and what appears to be a Pleiades-like star formation exists on a wall in the Lascaux Caves of France (see right). Although the interpretation of the Constellation set is controversial, this arrangement may date back as far as 16,500 years. Personally, I find even the thought of that kind of continuity between what we might see in the winter skies and what our ancestors also saw at night both comforting and humbling. Many of the same stand-out patterns we know today no doubt stood out immediately to them as the brightest objects in the sky marked out regular places as the Sun set, and the great distance we've traveled in history might be barely perceptible to an ancient astronomer going simply by the positions of stars.

Lascaux Cave bull and star pattern. From the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies and spacetoday.org.

We begin the tour by aiming our sights at the bright eye of the bull, the star Aldebaran. This orange giant is 44 times the diameter of our own Sun and has already used its hydrogen fuel, leaving this fusion engine to now graze on a steady diet of helium. Its name is derived from the Arabic for "the follower," often reported as in reference to its position below the Pleiades (so "following" this open cluster as we progress into winter). The other stars in Taurus are easy to see in darker skies but not otherwise noteworthy for their brightness at either naked-eye or binocular viewing magnification. Several of the bright stars closest to Aldebaran make up an asterism that a new observer might confuse with the complete constellation. The V-shaped Hyades (center of the image below and shown at right with white border) are composed of five stars, with Aldebaran the brightest tip. I'll admit that the first time I marked out the space for Taurus, I confused this asterism (and lambda-Tau to the west) with the entire object before double-checking the size. No bull. The Hyades star closest to Aldebaran, theta-Tau, is actually a pair of pairs, although they only appear as a single bright pair in binoculars and telescopes.

The Hyades (white) and Pleiades (red). From Lynn Laux, nightskyinfo.com.

Caught within the bull pen is the Pleiades (M45, shown labeled below from a Hubble image). This Tiny Dipper is visible year-round during the daytime in parking lots and slow-moving traffic everywhere (as the object embedded within the emblem on every Subaru, the Japanese name for this asterism) and is one of the treats of winter viewing in CNY (unless VERY early morning viewing is your game or you've been trying to see Mars in the late Summer skies, in which case you've been enjoying the pre-dawn sight of M45 since August). The amount of information available on the Pleiades online and as part of space research could easily (and very likely has) fill an entire book. While the seven bright stars are identified from Greek mythology as the Seven Sisters (Sterope, Merope, Electra, Maia, Taygete, Celaeno, and Alcyone), the counting aid that comes from a pair of binoculars easily reveals nine stars. The two stars that make up the handle of this tiny dipper are the proud parents Atlas and Pleione, placed to the east of the dipper to protect their daughters from either Taurus (for being a bull) or Orion (for being a male). Given the long history of this asterism, it is perhaps not surprising that the parents decided not to stop at seven. In fact, there are over 1,000 distinct stars in the Pleiades that have been revealed as part of multiple high-resolution studies. This density of stars makes the Pleiades a unique open cluster, as there is a wealth of stars and patterns visible at virtually any magnification, from small binoculars to the largest ground-based telescopes. For my first proper viewing session, I spent one full hour simply looking at this cluster through my Nikon 12×50's, amazed at just how little we really see of the Night Sky using the 1×7 binoculars built into our heads (and, perhaps, corrected by horn-rimmed glasses).

The Pleiades in detail. Image from hubblesite.org and wikipedia.org

On the opposite side of Taurus and caught between the horns is the first of the categorized Messier objects, the Crab Nebula. M1 to its friends, this nebula is a supernova remnant with a remarkable history. As documented in both Arab and Chinese texts (Europe was just coming out its, er, Dark Ages at the time), this supernova was so bright on July 4, 1054 that it was visible during daylight hours (and, as you can guess by the date, visible without any magnification). The supernova remnant we know today as the Crab Nebula was discovered (and correlated to the original supernova) first by John Bevis in 1731, then by Charles Messier in 1758 while, as it happens, observing a comet (that Messier is known best for his catalogue of objects that were NOT comets instead of the comets he worked so diligently to discover is one of the great fun ironies of astronomy). The NASA images of the Crab Nebula reveal a dense sponge-like structure full of filaments of all sizes. The image above shows a remarkable sight – the full cycle of the pulsar at the heart of the crab that continues to magnetically drive the expansion of the nebula (in the series of frames, the pulsar lies below and to the right of a constant-brightness star).

The Crab Nebula pulsar. Image from www.strw.leidenuniv.nl

Stepping forward several hundred years, Taurus also marks the present locations of Pioneer 10 and COSMOS 1844. Pioneer 10 is currently speeding in the direction of Aldebaran, having been successfully steered through the asteroid belt to make a series of images of Jupiter. At its current velocity, this trip to Aldebaran's current location would take 2 million years, about the same amount of time it might take most of the world to decipher the meaning of the emblematic plaque attached to its exterior (below). Perhaps someday we'll have to explain to the aliens how a civilization that could launch a complicated probe into space couldn't see the multitude of planets in their own Solar System, then perhaps have to explain what happened to Pluto hat it no longer appears in our Solar System images. COSMOS 1844 is one of over 2440 satellites launched by the Soviet Union (and now Russia) since the first of the COSMOS series in 1962. At mag. 5, this satellite makes for a fun artificial viewing target (with a good map in hand).

The Pioneer 10 plaque. From wikipedia.org.

The final sights for telescope viewers include four NGC objects. NGC 1746, 1647, and 1807 are open clusters with magnitudes between 6 and 7. NGC 1514 (below) is a mag 10 planetary nebula just at the far edge of the Taurus border that should be increasingly good viewing as Taurus works its way towards our zenith (1514 will be the closest it will get to our zenith by midnight, a perfect last-good-look before Darling Hill completely freezes over).

NGC 1514. From Martin Germano, seds.org)

Phenomenal viewing at a reasonably safe distance. Just be mindful not to wave your red flashlights at Aldebaran!

www.syracuse-astro.org
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taurus_%28constellation%29
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divining_rod
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Lakes
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_effect_snow
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orion_%28constellation%29
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chalcolithic
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lascaux_Caves
www.spacetoday.org/SolSys/Earth/OldStarCharts.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aldebaran
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyades_%28star_cluster%29
http://www.nightskyinfo.com/archive/hyades/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pleiades_%28star_cluster%29
http://www.subaru.com/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sterope_(Pleiad)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merope
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electra_(Pleiad)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maia_(mythology)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taygete
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celaeno
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcyone_(star)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlas_(mythology)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pleione_(mythology)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crab_Nebula
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Ages
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Bevis
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Messier
http://www.nasa.gov
http://www.strw.leidenuniv.nl/~oberg/Pulsars/external.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pioneer_10
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jupiter
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pluto
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmos_%28satellite%29
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pioneer_plaque
http://server1.wikisky.org/starview?object_type=4&object_id=241&object_name=NGC+1746&locale=EN
http://server1.wikisky.org/starview?object_type=4&object_id=211&object_name=NGC+1647&locale=EN
http://server1.wikisky.org/starview?object_type=4&object_id=279&object_name=NGC+1807&locale=EN
http://seds.org/~spider/ngc/ngc.cgi?NGC1514