Some daily events in the changing sky for March 20 – 28.
Comet Lulin continues fading this week; it's about 7th magnitude. But at least it's high in the evening sky (in central Gemini) and free of moonlight until about March 29th. And its tail is double again! See our article and finder chart.
Friday, March 20
And no, eggs do not balance on end any more easily than at any other time of year (try it). Why should they? When will this goofy urban legend finally die?
Saturday, March 21
Sunday, March 22
Monday, March 23
Tuesday, March 24
Wednesday, March 25
Thursday, March 26
Friday, March 27
Saturday, March 28
Want to become a better amateur astronomer? Learn your way around the constellations. They're the key to locating everything fainter and deeper to hunt with binoculars or a telescope. For an easy-to-use constellation guide covering the whole evening sky, use the big monthly map in each issue of Sky & Telescope, the essential magazine of astronomy. Or download our free Getting Started in Astronomy booklet (which only has bimonthly maps).
Once you get a telescope, to put it to good use you'll need a detailed, large-scale sky atlas (set of charts; the standards are Sky Atlas 2000.0 or the smaller Pocket Sky Atlas) and good deep-sky guidebooks (such as Sky Atlas 2000.0 Companion by Strong and Sinnott, the even more detailed Night Sky Observer's Guide by Kepple and Sanner, or the classic Burnham's Celestial Handbook). Read how to use them effectively.
Can a computerized telescope take their place? As Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer say in their Backyard Astronomer's Guide, "A full appreciation of the universe cannot come without developing the skills to find things in the sky and understanding how the sky works. This knowledge comes only by spending time under the stars with star maps in hand and a curious mind." Without these, they note, "the sky never becomes a friendly place."
More beginners' tips: "How to Start Right in Astronomy".
This Week's Planet Roundup
Mercury is hidden in the glare of the Sun.
Venus (magnitude –4.2) plunges down out of twilight view in the west by about March 23rd, as it swings toward inferior conjunction between Earth and Sun on March 27th.
But this is an exciting time for Venus viewers! In a telescope Venus is a hairline crescent nearly an arcminute in diameter. And at this conjunction, Venus passes a full 8° north of the Sun. This means it should be visible at both dusk and dawn for at least three days centered on March 23rd as seen from latitude 40° north. The farther north you are, the longer the period of dawn-and-dusk visibility will be.
We've had reports of people with very sharp vision resolving the thin crescent of Venus with the naked eye. If you want to try, look right around sunset in a bright sky before the planet's glare becomes a problem and it also gets too low. To reduce the effects of your eye's optical aberrations, try looking through a small, round hole 1 or 2 mm wide in a piece of aluminum foil or cardboard. Of course, this also reduces your eye's aperture and theoretical resolving power, so experiment with different-sized holes. Send me your results! Email amacrobert(AT) skyandtelescope(DOT)com, and put Venus Crescent in the subject line.
Telescopically, Venus is best seen in the afternoon daylight; it's less glary against a bright sky, and it's higher in steadier air. Just don't let your telescope accidentally point at the Sun and blind you! Safest is to observe in the shadow of a building located to your west.
For more on Venus's especially favorable conjunction phenomena this year, see our article "Venus at Its 8-Year Best".
Mars (magnitude +1.2) is very low in the sunrise glow. Using binoculars, look for it just above the east-southeast horizon, well to the lower left of much brighter Jupiter, about 30 minutes before sunrise. Good luck.
Jupiter (magnitude –2.0, in Capricornus this year) is getting a little higher in the dawn each week. Look for it low in the east-southeast about an hour before sunrise. The best telescopic views will come early in during morning twilight.
Saturn (magnitude +0.5, near the hind foot of Leo) glows in the east at dusk, well up in the southeast by midevening, and highest in the south around 11 or midnight daylight saving time. Don't confuse Saturn with slightly fainter Regulus 18° (nearly two fist-widths at arm's length) to its upper right in early evening, and more directly to Saturn's right late at night.
Saturn's rings are 3½° from edge on. The rings will open to 4° by late May, then will close to exactly edge-on next September 4th — when, unfortunately, Saturn will be out of sight practically in conjunction with the Sun.
P.S.: Remember the quadruple transit of Saturnian moons across the planet's face that made news on February 24th? Hubble was looking, and last week the Hubble Heritage Project released the images. Wow. These are not science-fiction space art, these are photographs.
Here's a timetable (in Universal Time) of all of transits by big Titan and/or its shadow for the rest of 2009.
Uranus is hidden behind the glare of the Sun.
Neptune is hidden in the glow of sunrise, far in the background of Jupiter.
Pluto (in northwestern Sagittarius) is in the southeast before dawn.
All descriptions that relate to your horizon or zenith — including the words up, down, right, and left — are written for the world's mid-northern latitudes. Descriptions that also depend on longitude (mainly Moon positions) are for North America. Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) equals Universal Time (known as UT, UTC, or GMT) minus 4 hours.
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