The best of astronomy this month:
By Patricia Skelton, Astronomy Education Officer
(Details given are for London and may vary for other parts of the UK).
Top 3 things to see this month:
- Throughout the month - Mars and Uranus are visible in the evening sky while the planets Venus, Jupiter and Saturn are up in the early morning sky.
- 6 Mar - As it's new moon, dark sky conditions make this the best time to look at the Crab Nebula as well as the Orion Nebula.
- 21 Mar - Have a look at the full moon today - this is the third and last supermoon of 2019.
Look Up! Podcast
As well as taking you through what to see in the night sky each month, Royal Observatory Greenwich astronomers pick their favourite astro news story. For March they're bidding farewell to the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity and have a chat about a rock brought back by the Apollo 14 astronauts that turns out to be a piece of the Earth. Have a listen below then vote for your favourite news story on our Twitter poll during the first week of the month.
Our podcast is available on iTunes too - search Look Up! and rate us if you enjoyed listening.
Throughout the month
Several planets remain visible in the night sky over the coming month. While Neptune has dropped below the horizon, Uranus remains high in the early evening sky towards the west. While not visible to the unaided eye, to a small telescope Uranus appears as a faint blue dot due to its extreme distance in the solar system. Its blue colour comes from the large quantities of methane in its atmosphere. With only one single visit completed, a short flyby by Voyager 2 in the 1980’s, Uranus remains one of the least well studied of the planets in our solar system. For more accessible planets in the night sky, Mars remains high in the southwestern sky, finally setting around 11pm each night. This orange-red point of light is amongst the brightest objects in the southern sky this month and is easily visible to the unaided eye.
More planets are visible in the early morning, just before sunrise. Venus, Saturn and Jupiter are all visible in the sky around 6am, over in the Eastern and South-Eastern sky. We’ll have to wait for the summer months for Saturn and Jupiter to rise early enough for an evening view.
For more of a challenge, try looking for Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun. Most easily visible in the first half of this month, it appears close to the ground in the West, no more than about 10 degrees above the horizon just after the Sun has set. Whether you intend to try and see it with your unaided eyes, a pair of binoculars or a telescope, make certain to wait until the Sun has set before starting to look for the planet. Not only will it not be visible while the Sun is up, this avoids any possibility of accidentally staring into the Sun.
The Moon this month begins in a waning crescent phase with new moon itself occurring on the 6th. For some more distant sights this month, look no further than the constellation of Orion the Hunter. Orion is a fantastic constellation that is very recognizable and contains some of the brightest stars in the sky, but it is also a fantastic signpost for wonderful deep sky objects of all kinds. Below the three stars that make up the belt of Orion are a line of three or four faint objects. Known as his sword or his dagger, this is not purely a line of stars but instead contains a number of nebulae. The brightest, in the middle of the sword, is the Orion Nebula. This vast cloud of hydrogen gas is a stellar nursery where new stars are being formed. One of the closest star-forming regions to Earth, and certainly the most intense nearby region, it is clearly visible as a dim smudge in a small telescope.
Over Orion’s head and between the horns of Taurus the Bull, is the remnant of a dead star. A supernova explosion, visible from Earth in the year 1054, has left behind the Crab Nebula. Just visible through a pair of binoculars, the extended clouds are the outer layers of the star, blown off during its violent death, while right at the heart remains an object only 30km across, but containing 1 and a half times the mass of the Sun inside. This is a neutron star, the crushed core of the star and one of the densest objects in the Universe.
Nearby to Orion is the site of a recently finished phase of star formation. Extend the line of Orion’s belt clockwise around the sky and you’ll eventually reach the Pleiades. Sometimes known as the Seven Sisters due to how many stars are readily visible to the unaided eye, this tight-knit cluster is a set of recently formed stars, no more than 100 million years old, making them very young as most stars go. Best viewed through a pair of binoculars, a wide field of view and modest magnification will reveal dozens of stars, a large stellar family that will drift apart over the course of the next few billion years.
Full moon this month occurs on the 21st March, the day after the Spring Equinox, the day when daylight hours start to outnumber nighttime ones. This full moon will also be the third and last supermoon of 2019, and so will appear slightly larger than the full moons throughout the rest of this year.
The Moon's phases this month
- 6 Mar - new moon (4:04pm)
- 14 Mar - first quarter moon (10:27am)
- 21 Mar - full moon (01:43am)
- 28 Mar - last quarter moon (04:10am)
- When looking at faint objects such as stars, nebulae, the Milky Way and other galaxies it is important to allow your eyes to adapt to the dark - so that you can achieve better night vision.
- Allow 15 minutes for your eyes to become sensitive in the dark and remember not to look at your mobile phone or any other bright device when stargazing.
- If you're using a star app on your phone then switch on the red night vision mode.
- Need a stargazing telescope or binoculars? Check out our range of high quality observing equipment recommended by Royal Observatory astronomers:
Share your astronomy pictures
Congratulations to Mustafa Aydin for his beautiful image of the night sky. He shared his image on our astrophotography Facebook page and we chose it for March's banner image.
If you want to be in with a chance to showcase your astrophotography skills on the banner of next month's night sky blog, share your photos via our Royal Observatory Astrophotography Facebook group.
You can also connect with us on Twitter: @ROGAstronomers
Hubble Vision - gallery exhibition
Come and see some of the most spectacular images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in our free exhibition at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.
The exhibition is open daily until 12 May 2019.
See more of the night sky
Come on an amazing tour of this month's night sky in our Sky Tonight planetarium show delivered live by a Royal Observatory Greenwich astronomer.
Central image © Mustafa Aydin
Resources for teachers and students
The Royal Observatory learning team have also created:
- Free animated videos that answer the biggest questions in astronomy and free resources to go alongside them.
- A whole host of podcasts featuring interviews with real space scientists, astronauts and active researchers working in UK Universities.