Heads UP! for March 2010
The prettiest sight this month is not a planet, but the Moon and a bunch of stars. It’s a one-night-only show on the evening of March 20th. Look for the crescent moon and just above it will be a group of stars looking like a tiny Dipper. These are the Pleiades. The best view is in binoculars!
Mars is still the star of the evening sky. It’s that bright and reddish dot high in east after sunset and almost straight overhead by 9pm. In a telescope, you may be able to pick out the north polar cap as a bright patch on one end of the planet. Then see if you can spot some gray shading on the tiny disk.
Saturn gets to be its brightest this month as the Earth sweeps by in front of it and we make our closest approach of the year. The rings are thin, but visible even in a small telescope. It will rise at sunset. The view of the planet will be better as it gets higher in the sky. For those of us who don’t want to stay up until late night for the best view, in April it will rise earlier and be higher in the sky in the evening. In any case, for the next two months, it’s a good time to see Saturn and its rings.
What happened to the brightest planets? Venus is just visible very low in the evening twilight sky. Once you find it, you’ll be able to follow it every clear night for the next six months. In early April, Venus will point to the way to fainter Mercury.
Jupiter is behind the Sun. See it at the solar observing site: http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/data/realtime/c3/512/
The International Space Station is a really bright dot moving across the sky. But you can only see it when it goes over us right before sunrise or just after sunset. Check heavens-above.com for the predicted times. For the northeast United States, the ISS is visible on many evenings until March 23. Then the ISS is a pre-sunrise event in April. The easiest-to-see dates are late twilight on March 4, 6, 17 and 19, if they don’t tweak the ISS’ orbit.
The next flights to the International Space Station are by the Space Transportation System on April 5th, Mary 14th, July 29th and the final flight for the Shuttle penciled in for September 16th. The Shuttle will bring cargo and additional modules. Russian Soyuz spacecraft, holding three astronauts, will bring crew members to and from the ISS for the foreseeable future.
Are we really not going to go back to the Moon? The proposed budget for NASA takes NASA out of the human spaceflight business until NASA develops a new heavy-lift vehicle that may take us to asteroids and the moons of Mars. What do you think America should do? Check out the discussion and be part of the decision.