Stargazing in March

Already the year 2015 is proving to be a great year for stargazing with planets, comets and meteorites gracing the skies but prepare for March as it brings a ‘micro moon’ and a solar eclipse. The planets are still sticking around for an appearance this month so if you haven’t had the chance to look at Jupiter or Saturn through a telescope or binoculars yet then keep on reading.

A partial solar eclipse seen from Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA on 20 May 21012. (Image credit: T. Ruen via wWikimedia.org)

A partial solar eclipse seen from Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA on 20 May 21012. (Image credit: T. Ruen via wWikimedia.org

 

 

Have your telescopes and binoculars at the ready to begin March with a full moon on the 5th   of the month. This was known to the Native Americans as the ‘full worm moon’ because it marked the time of the year when the worms would reappear and the soil would soften. Not only does this moon inspire  hope of warmer and longer days as spring comes upon us, it is also the smallest and furthest moon of 2015. Having adopted the new name of ‘micro moon’ compared to the usual name of apogee full moon, the ‘micro moon’ of  5March will be about 50 000km (30 000 miles) further away from the Earth than the closest moon of this year which is expected on September 28th. This full ‘micro moon’ will not occur again until 22nd April 2016 as it repeats every year and 18 days later making it easy to estimate its occurance over the next few years. Every month the Moon reaches the furthest point from Earth in its orbit, called lunar apogee, but only when this coincides with a full moon we will have this unusual occurrence of a ‘micro’ or apogee full moon.

March also brings around the rare spectacle of a total solar eclipse on the 20th. This is when the Moon moves completely between the Earth and the Sun and blocks the Sun’s light from hitting the Earth. Depending on your location, the eclipse may not be visible or only partially seen as the position of totality will begin in the central Atlantic Ocean and move across Greenland and Northern Siberia. Many people will be travelling to the Danish Faroe Islands as they are easily accessible from the UK. Beginning at 8.25am the moon’s shadow will begin to curtain the sun, however at 9:41am on the morning of the 20th of March, the Faroe Islands will be plunged into darkness and it will become noticeably colder, in what many people explain as a terrifying and equally amazing experience. This moment of totality when the Sun’s disc is completely covered will last a mere 2 minutes and 2 seconds before the Sun begins to once again emerge from the mask of the Moon, completely at 10:41am.

How the eclipse will appear depends on where you are. (image credit: NASA)

How the eclipse will appear depends on where you are. (image credit: NASA)

 

For those who cannot travel to the Faroe Islands to experience the point of totality in the solar eclipse, there is still plenty to see as the UK will still experience a partial eclipse of up to 94% in northern, and from London an 87% partial eclipse.

The most important fact to remember when observing a solar eclipse it to never look directly at the sun as it can cause serious damage to the eyes or even blindness. There are safe ways of observing an eclipse such as pinhole projection, eclipse glasses or solar scopes.

When using eclipse glasses it is important to obtain them from a reputable seller and wear them throughout the entire eclipse. It is vital that the glasses are in perfect condition and are not damaged as holes or scratches will render the glasses useless against even the slightest amount of the sun’s harmful rays. They  need to be made from specific materials that can protect against the Sun’s rays.

Using pinhole projection is a great and safe way to view the solar eclipse as you are able to project the Sun’s image onto a piece of paper or card. Many people do this using a cardboard shoe box or even a paper plate. Some solarscopes work in the same way where the image of the sun is projected onto a surface. Solarscopes are also good for observing the Sun on other times throughout the year as sunspots can easily be seen.

All of the above are just suggestions, however remember under any circumstances that the Sun should not be directly looked at as it can cause serious damage to your eyes.  All we need to make sure of now is a clear and cloudless sky to witness this magnificent show that won’t be visible again from Ireland until 2026.

Jupiter meets the Crab in the March sky (image credit: Samantha Steed/Armagh Planetarium/Stellarium)

Jupiter meets the Crab in the March sky (image credit: Samantha Steed/Armagh Planetarium/Stellarium)

 

The Moon and the Sun are clearly putting on a magnificent performance this month but that doesn’t mean the planets and stars are to be avoided. Keeping the planets in mind, Jupiter is still dancing across the night’s sky. Moving into Cancer, Jupiter will still be visible around 10pm in the southern sky making it the perfect time to observe its features such as the Great Red Spot.

Saturn meets the Scales

Saturn meets the Scales (Image credit: Samantha Steed/Armagh Planetarium/Stellarium)

 

During the first week of March, Venus and Mars will also be visible just after sunset and quite low to the horizon. With only 7 degrees apart in the night’s sky they will be visible together through the lenses of a pair of binoculars. On the 7th of March the planet Uranus will be lying almost halfway between Mars and Venus so keep watch for this ice giant as it makes an appearance this month. Early in the morning just before dawn, the beautiful ringed planet Saturn will be gracing the skies near the constellation of Libra around 6:30am. This is definitely a planet for viewing through a telescope as you can witness the beautiful rings that Saturn is renowned for.

 

Deitties of love, war and the sky meet. (Image credit: Samantha Steed/Armagh Planetarium/Stellarium)

Deities of love, war and the sky meet. (Image credit: Samantha Steed/Armagh Planetarium/Stellarium)

 

It’s clear that we aren’t spoiled for choice this month with the moon, the sun and the planets putting on a spectacular performance. With the spring only weeks away we can only hope that the snow will not be staying around, so start your spring cleaning, dust off those lenses and make a beeline for the skies as there are some sights to be seen this month.

(Article by Samantha Steed, Education Support Officer)