Upstate New York Stargazing – April, 2018

The good, the bad, and the potentially ugly things that fall from space. Micrometeorites (IFLScience.com), a SkyLab fragment (from wikipedia), and the Chelyabinsk meteor trail (Alex Alishevskikh).

Upstate NY Stargazing in April: The Lyrid meteor shower

Published: Apr. 02, 2018, 2:31 p.m.

By Damian Allis

When asked to list the contents of our Solar System, some stop at the Sun, planets, and moons. Others will remember comets – a list of objects that grows much longer every year. For those looking for up-to-date info, see minorplanetcenter.net – we have comfortably cleared the 4000 comet mark. Some may add the asteroid belt – a region between Mars and Jupiter which looks less like the chaotic debris field from "The Empire Strikes Back" and more like oases of larger rocks separated by vast, empty deserts of tiny particles. Don't forget the currently 18,000-long list of NEOs, or Near-Earth Objects.

These are among the more than 18,000 reasons why the late-great Stephen Hawking and others have championed the need for colonization beyond the Earth's surface.

Changing positions in the sky is one thing – changing elevations is very different. Occasional bright flares make the news when captured on video. Events like Tunguska and Chelyabinsk remind us that there thing in space we might miss that could level cities. We are fortunate that most of the roughly 160 tons of debris from space that hits the Earth *each day* is in the form of micrometeorites that you could start collecting with a strong magnet and a flat rooftop.

The highly-anticipated demise of the Tiangong-1 over the weekend was a reminder that we may not be able to always rely on the "dilution-solution" of handling our garbage. Our planet is large, spherical, mostly covered in water, and largely unpopulated – but the number of satellites going to space will only increase as launches get cheaper. It remains to be seen if nations will opt to address the dangers of space junk before or after something serious – and unavoidable – happens here on the ground.

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 April. 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.

Astronomy Events Calendar

OrganizerLocationEventDateTimeContact Info
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper Lake1st Friday ObservingApr. 67:30 PMemail, website
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper Lake3rd Friday ObservingApr. 207:30 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyOctagon Barn Star PartyApr. 138 – 10 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyNight Sky AdventureApr. 177 – 8:30 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyAAAA MeetingApr. 197:30 – 9 PMemail, website
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterMember MeetingApr. 67:30 – 9:30 PMemail, website
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterObserving At The StrasenburghApr. 79:00 – 10:30 PMJim S., 585-703-9876
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterObserving At The StrasenburghApr. 149:00 – 10:30 PMJim S., 585-703-9876
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterASRAS Open HouseApr. 1512 – 4 PMemail, website
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterObserving At The StrasenburghApr. 219:00 – 10:30 PMJim S., 585-703-9876
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterObserving At The StrasenburghApr. 289:00 – 10:30 PMJim S., 585-703-9876
Baltimore WoodsMarcellusHello Spring SkiesApr. 13/147:30 – 9:30 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalKAS Monthly MeetingApr. 47 – 9 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingApr. 67 – 9 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingApr. 137 – 9 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingApr. 207 – 9 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingApr. 277 – 9 PMemail, website
Liverpool Public LibraryLiverpoolPlanet 9 LectureApr. 197 – 8:30 PMwebsite
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervillePublic StargazingApr. 78:15 – 10:30 PMemail, website
Syracuse Astronomical SocietySyracuseMessier Marathon and Public ViewingApr. 137:00 PMemail, website

Lunar Phases

Third QuarterNew MoonFirst QuarterFull Moon
Apr. 8, 3:17 amApr. 15, 9:57 pmApr. 22, 5:45 pmApr. 29, 8:58 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.

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 April 15, accurate all month except for the changing Moon position.

Evening Skies: Observers with bad necks or busy schedules have been waiting all winter for April. The constellations of the Winter Triangle – Canis Major, Canis Minor, and Orion – and additional of the Winter Hexagon – Gemini, Auriga, and Taurus – are finally lower in the western sky after sunset. Binocular viewers have precious little time to take in objects around Taurus and Orion.

This is also our last month to take advantage of Orion as a guide to its local constellations before it disappears again until just before sunrise in early August.

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 observing excitement this month is to the south. Saturn and Mars are putting on an excellent show atop the teapot asterism in Sagittarius, while Jupiter watches from the west in Libra. Hopping from Antares to Jupiter to Spica, try to find the very personable representation of the constellation Virgo, who appears to be falling on her backside on the western horizon this month.

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

Planetary Viewing

Venus: Venus has been an evening delight recently, with early March observers even fitting it and Mercury into the same binocular field of view. Venus continues to set later each day this month, getting brighter throughout.

For bright sightings, Venus has the first half of the month to itself. On the 17th, it pairs with a thin crescent moon after sunset, then spends the next few days sliding right between our two closest star clusters – the Pleiades and Hyades in Taurus. April 28th is the closest grouping of the three, with Venus almost making a straight line with Aldebaran and the Pleiades.

Groupings of Venus, the Moon, Pleiades, and Hyades later this month.

Mercury, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn: Jupiter starts the month rising close to 11 p.m. and finishes the month clearing the horizon at 9 p.m. We'll have Jupiter in our nighttime sky until October, ideal for small telescopes all summer long. As an early marker, the Moon joins Jupiter from above in Libra on April 3rd

The full view of the southern sky on April 3, showing morning pairings of the Moon and Jupiter to the southwest and Mars and Saturn to the southeast.

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.

The best show will be between Mars and Saturn this month. On April 1st, the two are just above the handle of the Sagittarius teapot with Mars on the right. On April 3rd, Mars will be directly below Saturn, an excellent site with or without binoculars. Mars move farther west each night thereafter, buzzing just below distant Pluto on the 26th and 27th. For those still not sure if those two extremely bright pinpoints are Mars and Saturn or not, the Moon provides an obvious marker on the morning of April 7.

The Moon meets Saturn and Mars above the teapot asterism of Sagittarius on April 7. Click for a larger view.

If you scan the area around both planets with binoculars, don't be surprised if you see batches of stars or little fuzzy features that don't come into focus – you're looking into the center – and densest – part of the Milky Way in this direction, where open clusters, globular clusters, and nebulae abound.

Swift Mercury even makes an appearance due east just before 6 a.m. starting in mid-April. If you intend on using binoculars to find it, be sure to stop your search well before sunrise.

ISS 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.

Those looking to figuratively catch the ISS this month have the first 12 days to do so, after which it is gone from our skies until early May. The ISS is an evening target these first two weeks, with several days of double-flyovers all between 8 and 11 p.m.

ISS Flyovers

DateBrightnessApprox. StartStart Direct.Approx. EndEnd Direct.
4/1moderately8:24 PMNW8:29 PMNE
4/1moderately10:01 PMNW10:03 PMN/NW
4/2moderately9:09 PMNW9:12 PMNE
4/3moderately8:16 PMNW8:21 PMNE
4/3moderately9:53 PMNW9:55 PMN/NW
4/4very9:01 PMNW9:04 PMNE
4/4somewhat10:37 PMW/NW10:37 PMW/NW
4/5moderately8:08 PMNW8:13 PME/NE
4/5very9:45 PMNW9:47 PMN/NW
4/6very8:52 PMNW8:57 PME/NE
4/6somewhat10:29 PMW/NW10:29 PMW/NW
4/7extremely9:36 PMW/NW9:39 PMW
4/8extremely8:44 PMNW8:49 PME/SE
4/8somewhat10:21 PMW10:22 PMW
4/9very9:28 PMW/NW9:31 PMS/SW
4/10extremely8:36 PMW/NW8:41 PMSE
4/11moderately9:21 PMW/SW9:24 PMS/SW
4/12moderately8:28 PMW8:33 PMS

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

Meteor Showers: Lyrids – Active April 16 To April 25, Peaking The Morning Of April 22

Meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through the debris field of a comet or asteroid. As these objects approach the warming sun in their long orbits, they leave tiny bits behind – imagine pebbles popping out the back of a large gravel truck on an increasingly bumpy road. In the case of meteor showers, the brilliant streaks you see are due to particles usually no larger than grains of sand. The Earth plows through the swarm of these tiny particles at up-to 12 miles-per-second. High in the upper atmosphere, they burn up due to friction and ionize the air around them, producing long light trails. We can predict the peak observing nights for a meteor shower because we know when and where in Earth's orbit we'll pass through the same part of the Solar System – this yearly periodicity in meteor activity is what let us identify and name meteor showers well before we ever had evidence of what caused them.

The name of each meteor shower is based on the constellation from which the shooting stars appear to radiate – a position in the sky we call the radiant. The Lyrid radiant is precariously close to the funny bone of the troubled Hercules, but is still considered within the official borders of Lyra the Harp. Finding the radiant is as easy as finding the bright star Vega, which rises in the northeast just before 9 p.m. on the active nights of the Lyrids. Those awake during the peak 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. window are treated to the complete Summer Triangle – a reminder that the summer constellations are well on their way.

The Lyrid Meteor Shower radiant, roughly between the bright star Vega and the southern elbow of Hercules. Click for a larger view.

How to observe: The nights leading up to the Lyrid peak will be the best time for viewing this month, as observers on the 23rd and 24th will have to compete with the bright moon to the west. One thing you'll be sure *not* to see this year is the comet producing the Lyrids – Comet Thatcher (C/1861 G1) has a 415-year orbit and was last in our part of the Solar System in 1861, just a bit too early for anyone to even attempt capturing it on a photographic plate.

Learn A Constellation: Gemini

Gemini in the western sky after sunset this month above Orion's Club.

In last month's article, we delved into some of the mathematics that made up the early lunar calendars, noting how much simpler life would be if only the Moon went around the Earth every 30 days and the Earth went around the Sun every 360 days. This month, we go with a full-on mythological possibility.

Venus is bright enough to cast shadows, but is never out for more than a few hours past sunset or a few hours before sunrise – a planet can only be visible all night long if it's beyond our own orbit. Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are the only three throughout human history that any one of our ancestors could have observed all night long. Of the three, Jupiter is the brightest object, no doubt the reason for its moniker of "king of the planets," its association with Zeus throughout Greek/Roman antiquity, and its attribution to the Babylonian god Marduk long before the Greeks.

Jupiter's orbit is 11.86 years long. That means, nearly every 12 years, Jupiter appears in roughly the same place in the sky from our vantage point on Earth. If one were to believe that the god(s) did not trade in coincidences in the nighttime sky, certainly the 12-year cycle for Jupiter's return to its starting point was something profound – and the division of its path into 12 stations by the Babylonians was simply good bookkeeping to make sure of no confusion when it came to knowing where one's god might be.

Our year-long walk around the zodiac brings us to Gemini the Twins this month. These two have spent at least the last 2,000 years dancing atop Orion's club in their Greek mythological roots, and have had their bright stars Castor and Pollux regarded as celestial twins as far back as Babylonian times. As the eastern-most member of the Winter Hexagon, Pollux and all of Gemini are easy to find and all the more prominent by their placement above Orion and Taurus. Often sketched with hands held, Pollux is all knees-and-feet, while the svelte Castor seems to have had a part of one leg knocked to the other by Orion's club.

M35, off Castor's foot and as wide as the full Moon. The smaller, denser cluster at lower-right is NGC 2158.

Gemini is best known for four observing targets of astronomical or historical significance. Off the western foot of Castor lies the open cluster M35, observable as a fuzzy patch without binoculars under dark skies. Much closer to home, Aristotle mentioned observing Jupiter occulting, or temporarily covering, a star in Gemini way back in December of 337 B.C.E. Much closer to home and recent history, both Uranus (1781) and Pluto (1930) were discovered within the borders of Gemini.

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 – 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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