March 2, 2015
The Night Sky:
Despite the weather, February had its highlights
By GERRY LEBING
has been the evening star throughout February. Stepping out on my back
porch at dusk and seeing Venus dominating the southwest horizon lets me
know it’s probably going to be a good night for viewing the
stars. You know it’s going to be particularly good when Venus is bright
enough to cast shadows. Later, walking out front, I get to see
Jupiter in the east glowing like a diamond!
Once I spot
Jupiter, I always look towards the south to locate Orion and then focus
on the Orion Nebula. I’ve had mixed success viewing it with
the naked eye. But I find it rewarding to see that fuzzy star and
tell myself I’ve still got pretty good eyes for an old guy! (Just
so you know, I always check out Mizar and Alcor in the handle of the
Big Dipper, too. I batted a thousand on seeing that pair in
Sirius, the Dog Star, has been spectacular,
too. It’s easy to find. It tends to be low in the southern
sky and very bright. If you need a little help, find Orion’s belt
and use it as a pointer to Sirius. Looking up at Orion, Sirius is
back and down (east and south) about six times the length of the belt.
is the brightest star in the night sky. It has a magnitude of -1.44,
which makes it dimmer than Venus and Jupiter but much brighter than
Mars. Sirius appears very bright because it’s just over 8.5 light
years away. That makes it the fifth closest star system.
With the bad weather this month, I managed to get only a few decent shots:
This is M81. Some sources (Wikipedia) refer to it as Bode’s Galaxy. It’s 12 million light years away.
following two photos are shots I took of its sister galaxy, M82.
If you look at the first shot from last year, you can see the supernova
that became visible in January 2014. In the second shot, it’s
gone. Who says stars never change?
MARCH SKY WATCHING
(magnitude -4) will continue to be the bright evening star in the
west-southwest during March. Mars (magnitude +1.2) will be
between it and the horizon. As an added bonus, Uranus will shine
just above Venus the first of the month. You will probably need a
pair of binoculars or a telescope to get a decent view of it. It will
look like a small blue dot. With a magnitude close to +6, it’s pretty
difficult to make out with the naked eye.
As the month
progresses, Uranus will be moving closer to the horizon. By March 4,
Uranus will be in the middle of the trio. By March 11, Uranus
will be closer to the horizon than Mars and Venus. It will
finally duck below the horizon on the night of March 23, but it will
probably have been obscured for observation by the fading light of the
sun several nights prior to then.
-2.6) will be visible all night long. It stands out as a very
bright star to the naked eye, but add a pair of binoculars or a
telescope and you should be able to see its bands. On a good night, you
might spot several of its larger moons.
Here’s a quick shot of
Jupiter I took on Feb. 20. This is a pretty good representation
of what you might see looking through a telescope or a pair of
If you zoom in to the image, there’s a little more detail.
will be visible near the south-southeast horizon just before
dawn. As the month progresses, you might catch a fleeting glimpse
of Neptune just before sunrise! Neptune’s magnitude is +8, so you
will need a very good pair of binoculars or a telescope to spot
it. Like Uranus, Neptune appears as a blue dot when viewed
through a telescope. I still find it cool to look at the most remote
planet in our solar system.
Pluto is no longer
classified as a planet and is now considered a dwarf planet. If you
have access to a good telescope, you can view Pluto between 3 a.m. and
dawn. It’s a magnitude +14 object, so you will also need a star map to
identify it from the background stars. If you want to positively
identify Pluto, the best technique is to photograph several images of
it and its background stars over several nights and then compare the
photos. The dot that appears to move through the scene is
Pluto. That’s how Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930.
will start March rising in the east-southeast just after
midnight. At 6 a.m., it will be due south and a little less than
half way to the zenith.
Orion, the hunter, continues to
be the most prominent constellation in the southern skies. Last
month, I talked about the Orion Nebula surrounding the second star in
the sword. That’s not the only nebula in the Orion constellation.
The first star in his belt is surrounded by two other famous nebulae,
the Flame Nebula and the Horse Head Nebula. Neither one is visible with
the unaided eye. They are both difficult to view through a telescope,
but I find it extremely rewarding to get a good glimpse of them.
aren’t the only things that are interesting in Orion. Betelgeuse,
the prominent star in the upper left shoulder, is a red
super-giant. This is what it looks like through my telescope.
you have access to a good telescope on a computer guided mount, you
might want to try and do a Messier Marathon on March 18. There
are 110 deep-sky objects in the Messier catalog, and you might be able
to see all of them that night. To pull this trick off, you need
to start as early as possible with objects nearest the western
horizon. Then progress through the list when M30 will rise in the
east just after 6 a.m. I don’t do Messier Marathon’s, but if you
decide to try and do one, please let me know how you did. The
most objects I’ve ever viewed in a night is about 30. I don’t think I’m
in shape to do 110!
If you happen to be in Svalbard, Norway, on
March 20, be sure to check out the solar eclipse. We will not be
seeing any of it here.
There will be a lunar eclipse on April 4.
Here are some clarifications of a few of the terms and names I used in this month’s article:
magnitude of an object is a scale of how bright an object appears in
the sky. At -26, the sun is the brightest object in the
sky. The full moon has a magnitude of -13.
Intuitively, you might see something wrong with the scale. First,
it seems to go backwards since brighter objects have smaller negative
magnitudes, and the sun is about 400 thousand times as bright as the
moon but only double its magnitude. That’s because magnitude is a
The human eye can see objects out to
about magnitude 6.0 in very dark clear skies. If you are viewing the
stars from your backyard or porch anywhere on Hatteras Island, the odds
are you are not experiencing “very dark skies.” The house lights,
security lights, and business lights are all forms of light pollution
that reduce the splendor of the night skies, so you're probably
limited to seeing magnitude 4 or brighter stars.
pollution is excessive or misdirected artificial light. It has
been shown to cause sleep disorders in humans, disrupt the nesting
activities of sea turtles, cause confusion in migratory birds, and even
impact the growth cycles of some trees. Astronomers tend to be obsessed
with it since one misdirected street light can ruin the night skies of
several hundred properties.
Want to convince
yourself? Pick a clear night and walk up over the dune onto the
beach. Turn off your flashlight and give your eyes about 15
minutes to adjust to the darkness. You will probably start to see stars
you never knew were there. Now walk back over the dunes and try
to do the same thing within 100 feet of a street light or a security
light. You’ll probably see about 50 percent fewer stars! Now
think about the impact 1,000 street lights have on our night skies.
supernova is a star that has grown old and then explodes. As
shown in the images of M82, a supernova can stand out like sore thumb
but the explosion is only visible for a short period of time.
Lebing is a retired computer scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey
in Washington, D.C. He has visited Hatteras Island since the
mid-1970s. He and his wife, Karen, have owned property here for several
years and moved to their home in Waves full-time in 2013. You can send
him questions about the night sky through e-mail, [email protected].)