The Sky Above You – March 2020
By Duncan Lunan
The Moon will be Full on March 9th, and New on March 24th, four days after this year’s spring equinox and five days before the clocks go forward on the 29th. There will be a Supermoon on 9th March, when the Moon will be Full and also at its closest to Earth. It will pass through the Hyades Open Cluster in Taurus after sunset on 29th March. This quarter also features an elaborate sequence of conjunctions of the Sun, the Moon and all the planets including the Earth (every time), continuing below.
The planet Mercury will be invisible, though it will be at greatest western elongation from the Sun on March 24th.
Venus is brilliant in the evening sky, moving from Pisces through Aries into Taurus, setting at 10 p.m. initially and after midnight by the end of March, after greatest eastern elongation on March 24th. Venus appears 2 degrees to the right of Uranus on March 7th , and the Moon appears near Venus when they are below the Pleiades and Hyades clusters on March 28th and 29th.
Mars is in Sagittarius, reaching Capricornus by the end of the month, still in the morning sky, rising about 4 a.m.. The Moon appears near Mars on March 18th with Jupiter nearby at the time; Mars passes below Jupiter on March 20th and Saturn on March 31st.
Jupiter is also in Sagittarius, rising at 4.45 a.m, near the Moon with Mars beyond it on the 19th, and with Mars passing below Jupiter the following night.
Saturn too is in Sagittarius, rising along with Mars and Jupiter. The Moon is below Saturn on March 19th and Mars passes below Saturn on the 31st, both in the morning sky.
Uranus in Pisces sets at 9.30 p.m. in March, appearing 2 degrees left of Venus on March 7th, passed by the Moon on the 26th and disappearing behind the Sun by the end of the month.
Neptune in Aquarius is lost behind the Sun by the end of March, at superior conjunction on the far side of the Sun on April 8th.
If you find the constellation Orion from the map, you’ll find it looking slightly different. Betelgeuse, at the top left of the constellation, has dimmed in brightness by over 50% and is no longer the brightest star in Orion. Betelgeuse is a red giant star of huge size and it does vary in brightness, in complex cycles, so it may be that those have coincided. But it’s known that Betelgeuse will explode as a supernova sometime within the next 100,000 years, and if it does, at a distance of 640 light-years it will be brighter than the Full Moon, visible in daylight.
The next meeting of the Astronomers of the Future Club in Troon will be on Thursday March 26th at 7.15 p.m., upstairs in the RSAS Barassie Works Club, 4 Shore Road, Troon, KA10 6AG, cost £3. The speaker will be Dr. Fraser MacDonald of Edinburgh University, talking about his new book “Escape from Earth”, about the early history of the US space programme. For more details, contact Alan Martin on 07947 331632.
Duncan Lunan’s new book “From the Moon to the Stars”, a collection of space travel stories old and new relating to the Moon and Project Apollo, is now available from the publishers at https://othersidebooks.wordpress.com, as well as on Amazon or through booksellers; details of that and his other books are on Duncan’s website, www.duncanlunan.com.
The Sky Above You
By Duncan Lunan
About this Column
I began writing this column in early 1983 at the suggestion of the late Chris Boyce. At that time the Post Office would allow 1000 free mailings to start a new business, just under the number of small press newspapers in the UK at the time. I printed a flyer with the help of John Braithwaite (of Braithwaite Telescopes) offering a three-part column for £5, with the sky this month, a series of articles for beginners, and a monthly news feature. The column ran from May 1983 to May 1993 in various newspapers and magazines, but never in more than five outlets at a time, although every one of those 1000-plus papers would have included an astrology column. Since then it’s appeared sporadically in a range of publications including The Southsider in Glasgow and the Dalyan Courier in Turkey, but most often, normally three times per year, in Jeff Hawke’s Cosmos from the first issue in March 2003 until the last in January 2018. It continues to appear monthly in Troon's Going Out and Orkney News. Enquries from other outlets welcomed!
The monthly maps for the column were drawn for me by Jim Barker, based on similar, uncredited ones in Dr. Leon Hausman’s “Astronomy Handbook” (Fawcett Publications, 1956). Jim had to redraw or elongate several of them because they were drawn for mid-US latitudes, about 40 degrees North, making them usable over most of the northern hemisphere. The biggest change needed was in November when only Dubhe, Merak and Megrez of the Big Dipper, as the US version called it, were visible at that latitude. In the UK, all the stars of the Plough are circumpolar, always above the horizon. We decided to keep an insert in the January map showing the position of M42, the Great Nebula in the Sword of Orion, and for that reason, to stick with the set time of 9 p.m., (10 p.m. BST in summer), although in Scotland the sky isn’t dark then during June and July.
To use the maps in theory you should hold them overhead, aligning the North edge to true north, marked by Polaris and indicated by Dubhe and Merak, the Pointers. It’s more practical to hold the map in front of you when looking south and then rotate it as you face east, south and west. Some readers are confused because east is on the left, opposite to terrestrial maps, but that’s because they’re the other way up. When you’re facing south and looking at the sky, east is on your left.
The star patterns are the same for each month of each year, and only the positions of the planets change. (“Astronomy Handbook” accidentally shows Saturn in Virgo during May, showing that the maps weren’t originally drawn for the Hausman book.) Consequently regular readers for a year will by then have built up a complete set of twelve.