Asta's Almanac, is based on Whats Up, Ron? a monthly almanac for Northern American astronomersastras

Astra's Almanac

What's Up in the Night Sky?

March 2012 - Vol. 16, No. 3

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Features: Calendar | Lunar Almanac | Monthly Topic

This Month's Night Sky - NOTE: The next paragraph describes the sky as it appears at 10 pm EST (11 pm EDT) near mid- month. The sky also looks this way at 11 pm EST (midnight EDT) during the beginning of the month and at 9 pm EST (10 pm EDT) by month's end.

Angular Measurement Review: It is interesting to note that the relationship between the angle subtended by combinations of fingers on your fully outstretched arm are the same for all viewers. This is due to the fact that the hand's size is proportional to the arm's length. A shorter arm is attached to a smaller hand while a longer arm is attached to a larger hand, thus the angle measured remains the same. If you hold your arm fully outstretched, your little finger, when sighted down your arm, is one degree wide. Your three middle fingers is five degrees, your fist, 10 degrees, and the distance between your little finger and your pointer finger is 15 degrees no matter what your age or size.

March means the constellations of the winter are slowly giving way to the constellations of spring. Orion is riding high, transiting the meridian by the end of twilight. The Hunter is followed closely by his dog star companion, Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Leo announces Spring and the winter constellations are beginning to lose their prominence this month. Vernal equinox arrives at last! Don't forgot to adjust your watches and clocks the second weekend in March when day light savings time begins.

MERCURY is part of this month's fabulous planetary dance only during the first week of the month. It will be fading shortly after sunset, so take care when looking toward the Sun. VENUS, extremely bright (-4.4), reaches greatest elongation on March 23. Watch as the dance of the planets as Venus and Jupiter grow closer in the sky this month. As the month opens, they are 10 degrees apart, with Venus closing in at 1 degree a day, until March 15 when the two planets are 3 degrees apart. MARS reaches opposition on March 3. For details on this year's opposition of Mars, check out last month's almanac, by clicking on the previous issue button or words above. Still bright, JUPITER sets in the W before midnight. SATURN rises in the late evening, following Mars and moving toward opposition next month. The ringed planet joins the red planet this year as if echoing the Venus-Jupiter sky show. The two planets will meet each other in August, separated by less than 5 degrees.

Calendar of Events

NOTE: For those observers not in the ET zone, convert the calendar times to your zone's time by subtracting one hour for CT, two for MT and three for PT. Don't forget to adjust for Daylight Savings Time when necessary by subtracting one hour from your planisphere's time.; Dawn and dusk times must also be corrected. See your local newspaper, TV news, or cable TV's Weather Channel for sunrise and sunset times. Unfortunately some of these events may occur during daylight hours in your area.

Mars and Regulus (Alpha Leonis), 14 degrees apart one hour after sunset.
Mars at opposition. Lately, the red planet has been appearing very orange and bright in the evening sky. Find out which side of Mars is visible while you are out viewing the red planet through a telescope. Sky & Telescope magazine features an interactive application, Mars profiler. The predicted size of the disk is 13.8" and magnitude is -1.2.
Mars closest approach 62.6 million miles.
Mars 10 deg. north of the Moon.
Look W from a dark location, at about an hour after sunset, to view zodiacal light. ("Zodiacal light" is a vertical band of white light believed to be sunlight reflected from meteoroids found in the plane of the ecliptic, the apparent "path" of the Sun, Moon and Planets as they travel across our sky.) It will appear to be a very large, but very dim, pyramid of of white light, "leaning" to the left.
Daylight-Savings Time (DST) begins at 2 AM. If this occurs in your area, be sure to subtract one hour from your planisphere's reading.
Venus 3 deg N of Jupiter.
Spring begins in the Northern Hemisphere. The equinox occurs at 1:14 PM EDT.
Another sky dance, look for the Pleiades, Venus, Jupiter and the early crescent moon right after sunset.
Venus at greatest elongation, the farthest point East away from the sun. (That's 46 degrees from the sun.) The Earth's sister planet will be stationed in Pisces during this conjunction. The 2012 evening sky show has been fantastic, with Venus shining at -4.4+ and Jupiter approaching -2.2
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Lunar Almanac for March 2012

Phases of the Moon Phase and Date(s)

Best viewed before local midnight


Deep Space Objects

1st. Qtr

Planets & Moon



Qtr 13

Deep Space & Planets

Topic of the month: Virgo cluster of galaxies

Spring is the time of the year when the bright constellations and starry traces of the Milky Way fade early or rise late. The Spring sky normally becomes a dark sea, with only the bright star of Arcturus to guide us through the darkness. This year Mars and Saturn join Arcturus, standing out like beacons at a dark site. During this dark time, the constellation of Corvus, the crow, rises and flies low across the southern sky. As the crow flies, so do the constellations of Virgo and Leo become prominent. Between these two constellations, deep sky observers focus their telescopes and enjoy what is called the realm of the galaxies.

To find the realm of the galaxies, find the constellation of Virgo on your planisphere and look for the star Epsilon Virginis, known as Vindemiatrix or the Grape gatherer. Then look for the tail of Leo, the Beta Leonis, a star known as Denebola. Notice the dark sea that stretches between these two stars and look toward zenith to find a loose star cluster known as Como Berenices. In this area of the sky, pointing near the Milky Way's galactic pole, far above the plane of the galaxy where the bright stars gather, a small telescope will reveal some of the thousands of galaxies located in this area.

Studies of the sky revealed that galaxies gather together in clusters, and the realm of the galaxies features the closest large galactic cluster to the Earth, of which our own Milky Way is also a member, the Virgo cluster. A clear night at a dark site will reveal some of the most fantastic galaxies a small telescope can help us identify. Some of these have formal names; like the Black-Eye galaxy, M64, or the Whirlpool galaxy, M51. There's the fantastic interacting galactic pair, M81 and M82, the closest group of galaxies outside our own local group. At least 16 of the M galaxies are located in the area between Vindemiatrix and the tail of Leo. Still more, M65 and M66 near the head of Leo are also part of this fantastic galactic cluster. An easy way to start looking for the M galaxies is just to aim your telescope to the mid-point between these two stars and start panning. If you decide to start finding and cataloging these galaxies for yourself, you will eventually want to establish your own pattern for observing them. Several methods can be found on the internet. Start at the SEDS site to find the some of the best patterns to choose.

--See You Under the Stars!
Astra for Astra's Almanac

This installment of "Whats Up?" is ©2012 by Dawn Jenkins for Astra's Stargate. View Ron Leeseburg's Farewell Issue

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