Spring is on its way, so get outside for stargazing fun in March! There are bright planets to observe and it’s the start of Galaxy Season, so there’s plenty of celestial sights to enjoy in the third month of 2014. Here are a few of my top picks for March stargazing:
Mars gets bigger and brighter – In mid to late March, the red planet Mars will get brighter and bigger in the night sky. Mars reaches opposition – its closest yearly approach to Earth – in early April, but it will start to be an attractive target in the late night hours of March. The disk of the planet will grow in apparent size from 12 arc seconds to almost 15 arc seconds as its orbit brings it closer and closer to our own planet. While almost any size telescope will show you Mars, an 80mm refractor or 6″ or larger reflector are really needed to see any detail on the planet.
A filter will help bring out the elusive darker markings on Mars!Catch Jupiter in the early evening – If you haven’t sought out spectacular Jupiter with a telescope this year, now’s your chance! Gigantic Jupiter will be well placed for visual observations and imaging in the early evening hours of March. Like Mars, any telescope will display the basic features, but bigger scopes show a wealth of detail. Look for Jupiter in the constellation of Gemini and try an affordable filter to enhance contrast of the major cloud belts and the famous Great Red Spot!Get ready for Saturn – Saturn rises before midnight in the constellation of Libra and will be a good telescopic target in the late evening and morning skies of March. Just about any telescope can show the amazing ring system, and larger models will reveal the Cassini Division feature of the ringed planet.
March is still a good time to see the constellation of Orion and M42, the Orion Nebula. After March, the Orion constellation will get lower and lower in the west, making it harder to see as the Sun moves eastward in the sky. The wispy Orion Nebula can easily be seen with 50mm or larger binoculars, and using a telescope will reveal more detail.Brilliant binocular clusters – Grab a pair of 50mm or larger binoculars in March for great views of the Pleiades cluster (M45), the Beehive cluster (M44), and the must-see Double Cluster in Perseus. These sparkling sky gems are simply beautiful when observed with big binoculars. By about 9pm throughout March, Ursa Major, Leo, and the western edge of the Virgo galaxy cluster are high enough in the eastern sky to yield great views of some of our favorite galaxies. Check out the bright pair of M81 and M82 just above the Big Dipper asterism.
Look east of bright star Regulus in Leo to observe M65 and M66, which can be seen in almost any telescope. In the northeastern sky, check out the famous Whirlpool Galaxy (M51). While the Whirlpool can be seen with modest 50mm binoculars, using a 10″ or 12″ telescope in a dark sky site will display the distant galaxy’s beautiful spiral arms. With an 8″ or larger telescope and a dark sky this region of the sky harbors dozens of galaxies – try to find them all!Challenge object, NGC 2419, “The Intergalactic Wanderer” – In the constellation Lynx, from a location with dark skies using a good 4.5″ or larger telescope you can find NGC 2419, a globular star cluster. To make this glittering cluster an easier target to locate, we suggest a 6 or 8″ telescope, and a larger telescope is needed to resolve the cluster into individual stars. NGC 2419 is a distant globular cluster, once thought to lie outside our Milky Way galaxy.Get ready for April’s lunar eclipse! – Mark your calendars – there will be a total eclipse of the Moon on the night of April 14/15, the first in years for North America.
All objects described above can easily be seen from a dark sky site, a viewing location some distance away from city lights where light pollution and when bright moonlight does not overpower the stars. All objects have been verified by actual observations.