I love March as this is when the Milky Way appears higher in the sky and some of the best constellations are right overhead, and the weather is a bit more pleasant. This is an excellent time to head outside, spread a blanket on the ground and just lie there looking up. As well as some fantastic stars and constellations, you can also see satellites and if you are out long enough meteors (or what you commonly call ‘shooting stars”). These are pieces of dust and/or debris from space that burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, where they can create bright streaks across the night sky. When Earth passes through the dusty trail of a comet or asteroid’s orbit, the many streaks of light in the sky are known as a meteor shower.

Constellations represent groups of stars that have been given a name and, more recently, a border. For thousands of years, constellations have been used as a tool to share cultural stories, events and as markers.

There are 88 officially recognized constellations in the sky, and these astronomical patterns have a fascinating and long history.

Forty-eight of the constellations are known as ancient or original. They were talked about by the Greeks and probably the Babylonians, and possibly even earlier peoples. After the 15th century, with significant discoveries and worldwide navigation, the southernmost parts of the sky became known to man and had to be charted.

In 1930 the International Astronomical Union officially listed the 88 modern and ancient constellations (one of the ancient constellations was divided into 3 parts) and drew a boundary around each. The boundary edges meet, dividing Earth’s imaginary sphere, the celestial sphere, into 88 pieces. Astronomers consider any star within a constellation boundary to be part of that constellation, even if it is not part of the actual picture.

Today, the 88 western constellations help astronomers map the sky and search for astronomical objects.

High in the southern sky is the False Cross – so named as many folks, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere. It is false because the Southern Cross follows behind it to the southwest. Recall that we mentioned one ancient constellation that was split into three. The false cross used to be an integral part of the now-obsolete constellation of Argo Navis. The cross has a foot now in two camps. Two of its stars are from the Vela part of the sales, and the other two are from Carina the Keel. The third constellation originally in Argo Navis is Puppis representing the poop deck of the good ship Argo that Jason sailed in his quest for the Golden Fleece.

In this rich area of the Milky Way, there are many objects that we can easily see with our naked eye if we are in a dark place. We can see several very lovely open clusters with a pair of binoculars. The easiest one to see with your naked eye is at the top tip of the False Cross – I call it the field of baby diamonds. Its real name is NGC 2516. We can see it as a ghostly apparition about 0.5° in diameter. Although a remarkable sight through any binoculars, it is best in a small telescope showing around 100 members, with a large variation in colour and brightness, arranged around a red 8th magnitude central star.

Lying to the West of this cross is the second brightest star in the night sky, Alpha (?) Carinae or Canopus. Having the two brightest stars high in our southern skies is a bonus, with Sirius to the north. There was a time briefly in 1843 when Canopus lost its second place with a nova-like eruption of another star, coincidentally in the same constellation, Eta (?) Carinae.

This is an excellent segway to the true jewel in Carina’s crown, the famous Eta Carinae Nebula (NGC 3372). It is awash with star clusters and nebulae. This massive star-forming region can be seen with the naked eye roughly halfway between the Southern Cross and False Cross.

Figure 1: The sky looking south on March 10 around 9pm AEDT

Many Australian Indigenous stories relating to the Southern Cross are connected with the first man to die on Earth.

The common theme of stories from all the Kamilaroi and neighbouring language groups relates to the Creation time. At this time, two men and a woman came from the red country, and had shown which plants they were allowed to eat. Then there was a big drought, and because he was hungry, one of the men killed a wallaby, and he and the woman ate the wallaby. The other man said they should not do that, as they did not know the law of the wallaby totem. That man left the man and woman, who ate the wallaby.

After leaving the others, he came to a big yarran (gum) tree, where he lay down and died. A spirit saw that he had died as he would not break the law, then placed him in the hollow of the tree and lifted the tree into the sky. As he did so, they were followed by two cockatoos who just happened to be roosting in the tree at the time. The tree was placed in the area of the sky known as the Southern Cross. Over time it has faded so that only the eyes of the man and the spirit can be seen.

The two cockatoos still fly after the Southern Cross and are known as the Pointer stars.

The Moon this Month

(All times are in Australian Eastern Daylight Time)

  • New Moon:     04:34 am March 3
  • First Quarter: 09:45 pm March
  • Full Moon:      06:17 pm March 18
  • Last quarter Moon:      04:37 pm March 25

On the 11th  at 09:04 am AEDT, the Moon will be at its furthest point or apogee when 404,268km away from us. On March 24 at 10:37 am, it will be at perigee – the closest it comes to Earth this month– being a mere 369,760 km away from us.

A lovely picture opportunity is on the early morning of the 1st Mercury and Saturn begin the month together early in the dawn twilight in Capricorn accompanied by a thin waning crescent Moon. Again on March 29, Venus and Mars will join them in the pre-dawn sky.

Planets in March

Mercury begins the month 2.5° above Saturn in the eastern dawn sky; as a bonus, included in the view is the 27-day old slender waning crescent Moon, the trio fitting into a 5° circle. On the 3rd, Mercury passes just 0.7° to the right of Saturn and will appear noticeably brighter. On the 21stand 22nd, Mercury and Jupiter meet up just 1.5° apart; the pair will be close to the horizon at the time of civil dawn, and binoculars will assist. Still, you will need an excellent eastern viewpoint.

Venus spends the month in the eastern morning sky. It will be in Sagittarius before moving into Capricorn, then later to Aquarius and closing March again in Capricornus. As a matter of interest on the 8th, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Mercury all gather within the boundaries of Capricornus for one day, becoming the brightest objects in the faint constellation. Venus and Mars remain companions at 4° apart for most of March. On the 29th, Venus will be 2° from Saturn, with Mars above and a waning 26-day crescent Moon to the right. The planet’s greatest elongation of 47° west of the Sun Occurs on the 20th. When a planet is at its greatest elongation, it appears farthest from the Sun as viewed from Earth, so its apparition is also best at that point.

Earth reaches equinox at 02:32 am AEDT on Monday, March 21. This is one of the two times of the year when day and night are roughly equal in duration. It is the actual instant of time when the plane of Earth’s equator passes through the geometric centre of the Sun’s disk. This occurs twice each year, around March 20 and September 23. This is the exact time at which the centre of the visible Sun is directly above the equator.

Mars is visible in the early morning eastern sky in Sagittarius for the first week of March before moving into Capricorn with Venus. A pleasant view for unaided-eye observers occurs on the 29th when the Red Planet will be about 5° above Venus, Saturn and the waning 26-day old crescent Moon which will be to the right of the planets

Jupiter returns to the dawn sky after it reaches its solar conjunction on the 5th. Solar conjunctions generally occur when a planet or other Solar System object is on the opposite side of the Sun from the Earth. If you have a clear eastern horizon, you may be able to make out Jupiter and Mercury close together (1.5°) about half an hour before sunrise on the 21st. Jupiter is the brighter of the two planets. A pair of binoculars will help. Easier to see with the unaided eye is the slender waning crescent of the 28-day old Moon and Jupiter, 4° apart on the 31stIn either binoculars or a telescope, Jupiter’s Moons are always interesting. Jupiter is now high enough to follow its moon positions’ changes from night to night.

Saturn, Mercury and the Moon put on a show on the 1st in the early eastern dawn sky. On the 3rd, the planetary team of Saturn and Mercury will be just 0.7° apart, although low to the horizon at astronomical dawn. On the 29th, Saturn, Venus, Mars and the Moon gather for a pleasing early morning display

Uranus will be lost in the western evening twilight by the end of the month as it moves closer to the Sun and conjunction in May.

Neptune is in conjunction with the Sun on the 13th and reappears in the morning sky in April.

Meteor Showers

The gamma-Normids meteors are similar to the sporadics in appearance, and for most of their activity period are virtually undetectable above this background rate. The peak itself is normally quite sharp, lasting for only a day or two either side of the maximum which occurs around March15 which is not so great as it is three days prior to the Full Moon. The best time for observing therefore will be just before dawn when the radiant reaches a reasonable elevation and and the Moon has set at 3:19am.

Normally a small number of “sporadic” meteors can be seen each hour of a moonless night. Sporadics are likely to be seen in any part of the sky. During a shower, the number of meteors visible may increase considerably. The meteors will appear to originate from a small area of the sky, called the radiant. The spreading out from the radiant is a perspective effect due to the meteors travelling in parallel lines but as they approach the observer they appear to fan out. The shower is named after the constellation which contains the radiant. In general, the meteor trails do not start from the radiant, but a few degrees from it.

Figure 6: Finding Norma in the early morning sky March 14 (from Stellarium)

Sky Views for March

Figure 7: Looking south at 9:30pm on 6 March (from Stellarium)
Figure 8: Looking west on 20 March at 8:30pm – see the Pleiades setting.
Figure 9: early morning sky on 29 March at 6:22am facing east (from Stellarium)

Why not grab a 2022 Astronomy calendar that includes the fantastic photos and information on the planets, moon phases and skymaps for each month – usually $19.95 grab now for $15.00.

Also available are signed copies of Fred Watson’s Spacewarp Calendar for $15.00.

Want to get the best information for what is in the sky each month? Grab your copy of Astronomy 2022 Australia on special this month from our website. Usually, $29.95 RRP is now only $24.95.

Clear skies until next month! Stay up to date on my Facebook page.