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March 2020 Skies

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March Skies

by Dick Cookman


Highlights: Comet Journal, Martian Landers, Meteor Showers, Vernal Equinox, Planet Plotting, March Moon

Focus Constellations: Pisces, Andromeda, Aries, Perseus, Auriga, Taurus, Orion, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Lynx, Camelopardalis, Ursa Major, Draco, Ursa Minor, Cepheus, Cassiopeia

Comet Journals

Comet C/2017 T2 PanSTARRS is a 9th magnitude comet in Cassiopeia in March. On February 1, it was next to the Double Cluster, then moved toward Cassiopeia. The comet may brighten to 8th magnitude. It is a long period comet which rose out of the Oort Cloud below the solar system on an orbit tilted at over 60 degrees to the solar system plane. It will reach perihelion (closest to the Sun) on May 4, 2020, and then drop back through the plane of the solar system in September and embark on its long journey back to the Oort Cloud.

C/2019 Y1 (ATLAS) was discovered on December 16, 2019 and is moving northward through Pegasus at 10th magnitude in March. It will enter Andromeda in the middle of the month when it may reach 8th magnitude at perihelion and will enter Cassiopeia in early April. The comet will be closest to Earth on May 2nd when it will be in Camelopardalis.

C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) was discovered on December 28, 2019 and is moving northwestward through Ursa Major at 11th magnitude in March. It appears to be a fragment of a once larger comet that split. The other fragment may have been the Great Comet of 1844. Y4 Atlas could potentially brighten more than expected if further splitting occurs. It will be closest to Earth on May 24 and at perihelion on May 31 in Taurus when it may be bright enough to see with the naked eye!

Mars Landers

InSight is the first Mars mission specifically dedicated to uncovering the secrets beneath the surface. It landed on Mars in November 2018 and set up its seismometer. Insight detected a quake in April, 2019 and has detected over 450 “marsquakes” so far. These measurements reveal that Mars is tectonically active in some areas, possibly due to volcanic activity or other internal heat sources.

Magnetometer data shows that Mars has areas with strongly magnetized basement rock. Billions of years ago, Mars had a magnetic field. It is no longer present, but it left ghosts behind, magnetizing ancient rocks that are now between 200 feet (61 meters) to several miles below ground.

Insight’s heat probe is a 16-inch-long (40-centimeter-long) spike “mole” equipped with an internal hammering mechanism. As it burrows into the soil, it pulls a ribbonlike tether attached to its back cap. The ribbonlike tether extends from the lander to the back cap of the mole. The tether has embedded temperature sensors along its length.

The mole has had difficulty digging through the cohesive “duricrust” near the surface. There is insufficient friction between the mole and sides of the hole causing the mole to bounce in place when hammering. It became lodged at a very shallow depth then popped out of the hole in October. The probe drilled another 1.25” on Nov. 21 when side pressure was applied with the robotic arm. On Dec. 16, the mole achieved another 2.5” of depth. On Jan. 21, digging was interrupted as the mole backed out about 2 centimeters. After the limited success with side pressure the team decided to investigate ways to push down on the back cap while avoiding damage to the tether.

Curiosity is on the border Glen Torridon, the clay-bearing unit in the valley adjacent to Vera Rubin Ridge on 16,404 foot Mt. Sharp at the center of Gale Crater, the ancient remnant of a massive impact. Younger rocks comprising the Greenheugh pediment lie beyond and above the valley. The Greenheugh pediment sandstones represent a totally different environment of deposition than the older mudstones of the valley. From Sol 2656 (January 27) to Sol 2689 (February 26) the rover studied the youngest rocks in Glen Torridon, obtaining drill samples at Hutton Crater on Sol 2670 (February 10). After extensive analysis, mission scientists decided to risk a short cut to get up onto Greenheugh pediment, instead of a safer months-long circuitous route. The rover will, for the first time, attempt to ascend a series of 30 degree slopes.

Meteor Showers, Asteroid Surprises

The Virginid Meteor series of showers in March peak between the 3rd and 22nd. The Gamma Normid Shower is a minor Southern Hemisphere shower. Gibbous and full phases of the Moon will interfere with any meteors between March 3 and 15.

  • Several peaks: Virginids. Active Jan. 25-Apr. 15. Radiant 13h00m +04°(Mar 25). ZHR up to 5. 30 km/sec. Gibbous & Full Moon. Progenitor: Asteroid 1998 SJ 70.
  • March 14: Gamma Normids. Active Feb. 25-Mar. 22. Radiant 16h36m -51°. ZHR 8. 56 km/sec. Waning Gibbous Moon. Progenitor: Unknown.

The only asteroid passing closer to the Earth than the Moon in the last month was 4 meter diameter Asteroid 2020 DR4 which passed at 0.2 x lunar distance on Feb. 25 at 7.4 km/sec.

Vernal Equinox

The Spring Equinox on March 19 is at 11:50PM EDT. Easter Sunday (on April 12) is on the Sunday following the Full Moon (April 7) closest to the Equinox. Two thousand years ago, the Sun, Earth, and the constellation Aries were lined up on the Vernal Equinox, placing Earth in the age of Aries. The equinoxes are defined as the places in Earth’s orbit where a line connecting Earth and Sun is perpendicular to Earth’s axis. The wobbling axis completes a circuit in 26,000 years causing the line perpendicular to the axis to sweep through each of the 13 zodiacal constellations in 2000 years (Yes, there are13. Too bad astrology ignores Ophiuchus in its horoscopes.) On March 19, the Sun, Earth, and the constellation, Pisces are lined up, placing us in the age of Pisces. The age of Aquarius is yet to come, and the 5th Dimension were well ahead of their times.

PlanetConstellation(s)MagnitudePlanet PassagesTime, Date
SunAquarius, Pisces-26.8New Moon5:38AM EDT, 3/24
MercuryAquarius+3.2 to +0.2Max. West Elongation10:00PM EDT, 3/23
VenusPisces, Aries, Taurus-4.1 to -4.3Uranus, 2.0°S
Max. East Elongation
11:00AM EDT, 3/9
6:00PM EDT, 3/24
MarsSagittarius, Capricornus+1.1 to +0.8Jupiter, 0.7°
Saturn, 0.9°N
2:00AM EDT, 3/20
7:00AM EDT, 3/31
JupiterSagittarius-1.8 to -2.0Mars, 0.7°S2:00AM EDT, 3/20
SaturnSagittarius, Capricornus+0.7Mars, 0.9°S7:00AM EDT, 3/31
UranusAries+5.8Venus, 2.0°N11:00AM EDT, 3/9
NeptuneAquarius+8.0Solar Conjunction8:00AM EDT, 3/8

Planet Plotting

Venus (-4.1 to-4.3) in Pisces, Aries, and Taurus and Uranus (+5.8 to +5.9) in Aries are evening planets in March. On the 9th, brilliant Venus will appear to be 2.0° from dim Uranus. Binoculars are required for viewing Uranus which is 1900 million miles from Earth. Venus will be at a distance of almost 70 million miles and, on the 24th, will be at greatest eastern elongation when it is 46° from the setting Sun. On the 23rd, the Sun and Earth will be at equal distances from Venus at 66.46 million miles because Venus is 45° degree from the Sun and is at the vertex of a right angle with Earth and the Sun. Theoretically, Venus should be half lit at maximum elongation, but the actual timing of half-Venus usually varies from predictions (9:00PM EDT, 3/26) and from the elongation by a few days for reasons not quite understood. Determination of the actual time of this “Venus dichotomy” is a good observing project.

The predawn sky is replete with planets shining brightly in the southern skies. Jupiter (-1.8 to -2.0) is in Sagittarius, Saturn (+0.7) and Mars (+1.1 to +0.8) are in Sagittarius and Capricornus. Mars (+1.1 to +0.8) orbits in front of the two giant planets during March, making close passes of Jupiter on the 20th and Saturn on the 31st. Neptune (+8.0) and Mercury (+3.2 to +0.2) are in Aquarius with the former reaching conjunction with the Sun on the 8th and the latter at greatest western elongation (28°) from the Sun on the 23rd.

On the 18th, the waning crescent Moon is 0.7° from Mars at 4:00AM EDT, 1.5° from Jupiter at 6:00AM EDT, and 2.0° from Saturn at 8:00PM EDT. It is 4.0° from Mercury at 2:00PM EDT on the 21st and 3.8° from Neptune at 11:00PM EDT on the 22nd. The waxing crescent Moon passes 4.0° from Uranus at 5:00PM EDT on the 26th, 7.0° from Venus at 7:00AM EDT on the 28th, and 0.09° from Saturn at 7:00AM EDT on the 31st.

March Moon

The New Moon of March is on the 24th at 5:28AM EDT is the beginning of Lunation 1203 which ends 29.77 days later with the New Moon on April 22 at 10:26PM EDT. The Full Moon of March on the 9th at 1:48PM EDT is commonly known as the “Sap, Crow, or Lenten” Moon. It was called the “Fish Moon” in colonial times and in Medieval England it was the “Chaste Moon.” Celts named it the “Moon of Winds” and the Chinese call it the “Sleepy Moon”. Anishinaabe (Odawa and Ojibwe) people recognize it as “Onaabani-giizis” (Snowcrust Moon).

Lunar Perigee (minimum orbital distance) occurs on the 10th at 2:30AM EDT when the Moon is at a distance of 221,905 miles (56.00 Earth radii). Apogee is on the 24th at 11:23AM EDT when the Moon’s distance is 252,707 miles (63.76 Earth radii).

PlanetConstellationMagnitudeMoon PassagesMoon Phase, Moon Age
SunPisces-26.85:28AM EDT, 3/24New, 0 days
MercuryAquarius+0.44.0°SE, 2:00PM EDT, 3/21Waning Crescent, 27.14 days
VenusAries-4.37.0°S, 7:00AM EDT, 3/28Waxing Crescent, 4.06 days
MarsSagittarius+0.90.7°S, 4:00AM EDT, 3/18Waning Crescent, 23.73 days
JupiterSagittarius-1.91.5°S, 6:00AM EDT, 3/18Waning Crescent, 25.81 days
SaturnSagittarius+0.72.0°S, 8:00PM EDT, 3/18Waning Crescent, 24.39 days
SaturnCapricornus+0.70.09°S, 7:00AM EDT, 3/18Waxing Crescent, 7.06 days
UranusAries+5.94.0°S, 5:00PM EDT, 3/26Waxing Crescent, 2.48 days
NeptuneAquarius+8.03.8°SE, 11:00PM EDT, 28.52Waning Crescent, 28.52 days

  • Garry, Mark54, Observateur and 2 others like this


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