Heads UP! for March 2014

The highlight of March will be ‘not seeing’ something. The brightest star in Leo the lion, Regulus, will be briefly blotted out by faint asteroid Euigone(1) passing in front of it just after 2am EDT as seen from a narrow band passing over the New York City area. Seeing one of the brightest stars in the sky turn off for up to 14 seconds is a spooky event worth seeing. Timings from many locations of how long Regulus disappears can be used to map the shape of the asteroid. (See http://www.astronomy.com.cn/bbs/thread-223054-1-1.html scroll down for examples) For lots of details, including how to make scientifically useful observations, see http://occultations.org/Regulus2014/.

To see this event, in addition to setting an alarm clock at oh so dark in the morning, you’ll need to make sure you won’t go out at 2am just to find out you can’t see Regulus from where you planned to stand. (Seeing Regulus disappear behind a tree branch or a house definitely does not count!) So, go out some evening earlier that week and see if you can see the tip of the V in Hyades in Taurus around 8 to 8:30pm EDT. (That’s the V above Orion with reddish Aldebaran at the end of one of the arms of the V.) Regulus at 2am will be about a couple of fingerwidths below that spot in the sky, so if you can see that area below the V without obstructions, you should be able to see Regulus from the same spot around the time of the occultation.

Of course, there are many longer-lasting astronomical sights at more reasonable times in March.

The morning sky has a bright spray of planets, with Venus anchoring the scene low in the dawning sky. To its lower left early in the month is Mercury and well to its right is Saturn, and Mars further to the right, giving the early riser up to four planets for inspection.

Mars gets 25% larger this month and looks substantially brighter as we approach for our closest pass in many years in April. Mars rises by the end of evening twilight late in the month, making it more accessible to the prime time observer with a moderate or large telescope.

Saturn, a morning object, gets 5% larger in March, making a great sight even easier to see.

Venus gets smaller but thicker this month, more like a half-moon than a crescent when seen in a telescope during twilight. It’s standing out low in the southeastern dawn sky. Venus is joined by Mercury, which will be hard to spot lower to the left during the first two weeks of March. By the end of the month, Venus is , moving rapidly away from the Earth and gives up its title as the ‘closest planet to Earth’ to Mars.

Early morning astronomy gets a bit easier with the change to daylight time, with sunrise returning to after 7am, a time more typical to early January, but giving us more time for viewing Venus from east-facing train, bus and elevated subway stations on our way to work.

Jupiter is king of the nightime, passing high and bright overhead during prime time. It’s a great time to see the giant planet, with its ‘great red spot’ more prominent this year and four bright moons that occasionally leave their shadows lingering on the planet’s face.

A bit late for Olympic ice dancing, 4Vesta and 1Ceres appear to twizzle across the sky in Virgo, paired up from now through summer. In July they get within one degree of each other in the sky. Use your imagination to ‘see’ NASA’s Dawn spacecraft as its ion engine putters on its way between the two asteroids. You’ll need a good chart of their locations, but it’s great if you can track these two large rocks as they brighten enough to be see in binoculars as they move among the stars of Virgo from week to week.

The International Space Station joins the fun in the morning sky starting on the 11th through the end of the month.

This wouldn’t be an almanac column without noting the equinox occurs at 12:57pm EDT on March 20th. Enjoy!

(1) Erigone is from a Greek myth, so when spoken it’s divided up as e-RIG-on-e, not er-i-gone, even though since it’s making a star disappear, it might be more fun to use the “–gone” version.


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