March 1, 2017

The Night Sky: Fireballs, Distant Galaxies, and
Promising New Discoveries in the Skies


The Sun will set at 5:57 PM on March 1, and the moon, Mars, Venus and Uranus will all be just above the western horizon at sunset.  With a magnitude of -4.6, Venus is very easy to spot.  The moon is the only other object in the night sky that is brighter and it will be about 8 degrees above Venus. Mars and Uranus will also be very close to the moon.  Mars is the red object you can visibly see, and Uranus is the blue object you can’t see unless you’ve got a good pair of binoculars or a telescope.

Mars and Uranus will stay close to the western horizon throughout the month. Mars will seem to appear in the same area of the evening sky each night, while Uranus will get closer and closer to the horizon with each passing day. By the end of the month, you will probably not be able to see it because the brightness of the setting sun will obscure the planet.  

Venus will appear closer to the evening horizon with each passing day.  Then, starting on Match 20, you will be able to see Venus in both the evening and the morning. Venus will set at 7:56 p.m., the sun sets at 7:13 p.m. and rises at 6:45 a.m. just before sunrise at 7:03 a.m. This dual role as evening and morning star will be short-lived, and don’t expect to see Venus in the evening skies after Match 24.

Mercury will start to be visible in the western skies starting around the middle of the month.  It will appear higher above the western horizon each evening until early April. This makes the end of March an excellent opportunity to observe this small planet!

Jupiter will rise in the east at 9:04 p.m. on March 1, and Spica will rise right after it slightly to the south.  The pair will continue to appear together throughout the month.  

Saturn will begin the month rising at 2:14 a.m.  By the end of the month, it will rise at 1:21 a.m.

If the skies are very clear and very calm, you might be able to see Canopus, the 2nd brightest star in the night sky, during the first part of the month.  It will appear near the southern horizon almost directly beneath Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.  If you have never heard of Canopus, try reading “Dune” by Frank Herbert.  Arrakis - (aka Dune)-  is the third planet orbiting Canopus. (If you don’t have time to read the book, you might like the movie.)  I have not found any evidence of any exoplanets orbiting this star.


NASA announced the discovery of seven Earth-size exoplanets orbiting TRAPPIST-1. Scientists think all seven are rocky planets based upon their measured densities.  Scientists believe it is possible that all of them could have liquid water, but three are located in the “Goldie Locks Zone.”  That means the orbits are in a range that’s not too hot and not too cold for liquid water.  Liquid water is considered essential for the development of life as we know it.

TRAPPIST-1 is about 40 light-years from Earth.  That means a spacecraft traveling at 52 thousand miles per hour would take over 500 thousand years to reach the exoplanet orbiting it.

Last night I had a neat experience.  At about 9:15 p.m., I stepped out of the observatory for a minute.  As I opened the door, I saw the shooting star of a lifetime - a fireball that streaked down toward the western horizon burning out after 2 or 3 seconds.  The fireball itself was brighter than Venus.  I reported the occurrence to the American Meteor Society and found out I wasn’t the only person who saw it.  (

February offered some very good opportunities to observe distant galaxies.  My favorite image is this one of Messier 63, the Sunflower Galaxy.

The Sunflower Galaxy is 37,000,000 light-years away.  It’s a member of the M51 Group and has a visual magnitude of +9.3.

Moon phases:

First Quarter: March 5
Full moon: March 12
Last Quarter: March 20
New moon: March 27

(Gerry 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.  Astronomy is a subject that Gerry says he has always been interested in and one that he pursues seriously -- he's built an small observatory next to his house. You can send him questions about the night sky through e-mail, [email protected]g.)

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