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 (α) 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 (ŋ) 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.
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
On the 4th at 5 am AEDT, the Moon will be at its furthest point or apogee 405,889km away from us. It will also be at apogee at a distance of 404,919 km on March 31st On March 20 at 10:16 pm , it will be at perigee – the closest it comes to Earth this month– being a mere 362,696 km away from us.
(All times are in Australian Eastern Daylight Time)
- Full Moon: 11:40 pm March 7
- Last quarter Moon: 01:08 pm March 15
- New Moon: 04:23 am March 22
- First Quarter: 01:32 pm March 29
Planets in March
Mercury will be close to Saturn on the 3rd in the morning eastern dawn, with the two planets only just 1° apart. A low eastern horizon and binoculars are recommended for viewing, with Mercury the brighter of the pair. The planet is in superior conjunction (Mercury and Earth on opposite sides of the Sun) on the 17th, and it then returns to the western evening twilight sky late in the month.
Venus and Jupiter begin the month in the western evening twilight sky. The two brightest planets will be just 1° apart, the gap narrowing to 0.5° on the 2nd. Another striking conjunction occurs on the 24th with the 3-day-old waxing crescent Moon just 1°below Venus. On March 31st there will be a conjunction but you will need a pair of binoculars to see it as well as a low unobstructed western horizon), with Venus 1.5° from the planet Uranus. This meet-up will be nowhere near as close as the Neptune encounter last month, but still neat to view.
Earth reaches equinox at 08:24 am AEDT on Tuesday, 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 continues its journey through Taurus in the northern sky in the early evening before entering Gemini at the end of March. While in the constellation of the Twins, the Red Planet passes close to the beautiful open star cluster M35 (NGC 2168). Being close to the ecliptic, the Moon and planets often visit this cluster. M35 is visible to the unaided eye under good dark skies and is splendid in binoculars and small telescopes. On the 28th, the 7-day-old waxing gibbous Moon appears 4° from the planet.
Jupiter and Venus are very close in the western evening early in the Month. These conjunctions of the two brightest planets are not uncommon, occurring roughly 13 months apart. This one, however, is quite close and will be most impressive whether viewed with the unaided eye, binocular, or small instrument. Later this month, Jupiter will be too close to the Sun for observation.
Saturn will return to the morning eastern sky mid-month after its solar conjunction. While traveling behind the Sun in relation to Earth, the planet will have moved into Aquarius. The constellation of the water bearer remains its home for the rest of the year. On the 3rd, the ringed world has a close encounter with the innermost planet. On the 20th, the slender slender crescent of the 27-day old Moon will be near Saturn.
Uranus is heading towards conjunction it will be lost in the western evening twilight by the end of the month. On the 1st, the planet will be close to Venus. A challenging observation, being late dusk and also close to the horizon
Neptune is in conjunction with the Sun on the 16th and reappears in the morning sky in April.
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 on either side of the maximum which occurs around March 15th.
The best time for observing therefore will be just before dawn when the radiant reaches a reasonable elevation and the quarter Moon has set.
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 traveling 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.
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