Welcome to the March night sky. This is the month of the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere, and this year it falls on Sunday, March 20 at 3.33pm in Western Europe. At this time, the visible disc of the Sun will be seen to cross the celestial equator heading north. Also, then the Sun will rise exactly in the east and set exactly in the west 12 hours later.
This month, we have three meteor showers, the first being on the 16th called the Corona Australids. But these meteors can only be seen low in the sky towards the south. On the 22nd, we have two meteor showers, the Camelopardalis visible towards the north pole of the sky and the March Geminids discovered in 1973 by amateur astronomers. Both showers have shooting stars that travel relatively slowly across the sky and they may both be related to the same long-lost comet.
The James-Webb Space Telescope has now arrived safely at its destination which is a gravitationally balanced spot about a million miles from the Earth. As the telescope cools down to its operating temperature, it is being adjusted to maximum performance. This process will take several months and, so far, it is going well and there are high hopes for exciting new discoveries.
The closest star to our solar system (apart from our Sun) is called Proxima Centuri, a small red dwarf star a few percent the brightness of our Sun. Recently, a small planet slightly less massive than the Earth has been discovered in a close orbit around this star and this now makes two planets in orbit and probably there are more. So, this is a prime target for the James-Webb Space Telescope that should be able to detect if these planets have suitability for life.
All the bright planets now can only be seen in the early morning sky. The winter constellations of Orion and Taurus are low in the west in the evenings and the spring constellations of Virgo and Leo are rising in the east and directly overhead the easily recognisable constellation of Ursa-Major the “Great Bear”.
The Moon is new on the 2nd, first quarter on the 10th, full on the 18th and last quarter on March 25.
By Clive Jackson
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Clive Jackson is the director of the Camera Obscura attraction (next to the Castle in Tavira), specialising in education and public outreach.
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To see the March Sky Map click on the pdf link below