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March 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: Camelopardalis, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Draco, Ursa Minor, Ursa Major, Lynx, Leo, Cancer, Gemini, Orion, Taurus, Auriga

Comet Journal

Comet C/2011 L4 (PanSTARRS) is rising through the plane of Earth's orbit between the Earth and Sun. It is 3rd magnitude and will decrease to 4th magnitude during March after passing perihelion on March 10th. It is currently in Pisces Austrinus south of Fomalhaut and will appear to move eastward between Aquarius and Cetus and enter Pisces in mid-March. It will then make its first appearance for observers in northern states in the southwest sky at sunset. It is expected to rapidly decrease in magnitude in April while climbing higher in northern skies and will not be visible to the naked eye by May.

Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) is at 14th magnitude and west of Castor in northern Gemini. The comet is orbiting toward the Asteroid Belt as it approaches its encounter with the inner Solar System at the end of the year. Observers are optimistic about projections of naked eye visibility in October. The comet may be a spectacular apparition in November and December if it survives the inbound trip and successfully passes through perihelion while grazing the Sun's corona on Nov. 28th.

C/2012 F6 (Lemmon) is currently at 5th magnitude In Phoenix in southern hemisphere skies. It is moving northward and will enter northern hemisphere skies in Pisces in late March and early April. It will rise out of the glow of dawn after passing through perihelion on March 24th and may be as bright as 3rd or 4th magnitude. The comet then dims as it moves northward and rises above the plane of the Solar System.

Martian Landers

On February 9th, Curiosity conducted a drilling program in Yellow Knife Bay into fine grained gray siltstone or mudstone comprised sediments probably derived from erosion of a basaltic source. The drilling permits analysis of the interior of the rock which has been protected from geologic processes influencing the exposed surface of the rock since its time of formation. This provides the best information to portray the processes of formation. The outcrop chosen was named John Klein, in honor of a deceased Mars Science Laboratory deputy project manager and was investigated because of the possibility that it may hold evidence of wet environmental conditions long ago. The rock site where drilling was done was thoroughly analyzed in great detail with the various remote sensing instruments to determine the best geological and drilling location. The surrounding rock outcrop displays evidence of calcium sulfate (gypsum or anhydrite) veins and numerous small spherical nodules.

By the 20th scientists had confirmation that the rock was drilled and sampled successfully. Analysis of the sample in the ensuing days includes sieving of the sample and delivery of the components to the various instruments which will be used to conduct investigation.

From Sol 3207 (Jan. 30, 201) through 3226 (Feb. 19, 2013), Opportunity traveled 95 meters as it circuited around on Cape York and examined a series of rock targets. Solar array energy production briefly dipped to 490 watt hours per day on February 12th but has otherwise been well above 500.

Meteor Showers

Like February, March is characterized by an absence of significant meteor showers in the northern hemisphere. Unfortunately, March also lacks the unexplained Fireballs which characterize February. These fireballs are exceptionally bright meteors which hit the top of the atmosphere and travel at 30 and 35 thousand mph which is unusually slow for meteors. They penetrate to within 30 miles of the surface before fragmenting with occasionally spectacular results. The Fireballs of February began on the 1st when a 3 to 6 foot diameter meteoroid produced a fireball which was as bright as the full moon and lit up the skies of central Texas. NASA's All-Sky Fireball Network imaged at least six more fireballs over the USA in February and all were determined to originate in the Asteroid Belt.

The 50 foot diameter Russian Fireball that exploded 10 miles above the surface on Feb. 15th is an large example that was determined to be an Apollo Asteroid. These have very elliptical orbits which pass through the Asteroid Belt on one side of the Sun and pass between the Earth and Sun on the other, crossing Earth's orbit in the process. There may be as many as 80 million Apollo Asteroids of comparable size and 240 have been found which are over one kilometer in diameter. The total number of one kilometer+ objects may be 10 times as large. Welcome to the shooting range and be sure to duck.

Vernal Equinox

On March 20th at 7:02 AM EDT, the Earth arrives at the location in space where its axis is tilted toward Earth's direction of orbital travel. At that time the axis is perpendicular to a line connecting Earth and Sun causing all locations on Earth to experience equal hours of light and darkness. The lineup of Earth, Sun, and the zodiacal constellation of Pisces on the Spring Equinox defines the celestial age. Thus we are currently in the Age of Pisces which will last until we enter the Age of Aquarius in a few hundred years (depending on where constellation boundary lines are drawn at that time.)

Planet Plotting

Uranus (+5.9) in Pisces makes a brief appearance in the early evening sky at the beginning of March and then joins Mars (+1.2) and Venus (-3.9) which are also in Pisces and buried in the glow of sunset all month long. Jupiter (-2.3 to -2.1) in Taurus and Saturn (+0.4 to +0.3) in Libra are visible throughout March with the former setting about 1AM EST on the 1st and slightly before midnight EDT on the 31st. Saturn rises slightly after 11PM EST on the 1st and about 10PM EDT on the 31st. Neptune (+8.0) and Mercury (+3.7 to +0.2) appear in Aquarius in the east just before sunrise at the end of March when Mercury reaches its greatest distance from the Sun (Maximum Western Elongation) on the 31st.

Mercury and Venus have a conjunction on the 7th and the former is in conjunction with Neptune on the 19th. The latter has a conjunction with Uranus on the 28th after Uranus and Mars engage in the closest conjunction of the year on the 22nd. Mercury, Venus. and Uranus also have conjunctions with the Sun on the 4th for Mercury and the 28th for the latter planets. Mercury is between Earth and the Sun at "Inferior Conjunction" and Venus is on the other side of the Sun at "Superior Conjunction."

Planet Constellation Magnitude Planet Passages
Sun Aquarius, Pisc -26.8  
Mercury Pisces, Aquarius +3.7 to +0.2 Inferior Conjunction, 3/4, 8AM EST
Venus 4.8°SSE, 3/7, 3AM EST
Neptune, 2.4°SE, 3/19, 2PM EDT
Max. West. Elongation 3/31, 6PM EDT
Venus Aquarius, Pisces -3.9 Mercury 4.8°NNW, 3/7, 3AM EST
Superior Conjunction, 3/28, 1PM EDT
Uranus, 0.66°NNW, 3/28, 7PM EDT
Mars Aquarius, Pisces +1.2 Uranus, 0.01°S, 3/22, 4PM EDT
Jupiiter Taurus -2.3 to -2.1  
Saturn Libra +0.4 to +0.3  
Uranus Pisces +5.9 Mars 0.01°N, 3/22, 4PM EDT
Venus, 0.66°SSE, 3/28, 7PM EDT
Solar Conjunction, 3/28, 9PM EDT
Neptune Aquarius +8.0 Mercury 2.4°NE, 3/19, 2PM EDT

March Moon

Lunation 1115 is 29.56 days long and started with New Moon at 2:44 PM EST on Feb. 10th. It ends with the New Moon on Mar. 11th at 3:51PM EDT. Lunation 1116 is 29.26 days long and begins on the 11th. It ends with the New Moon of April 10th at 5:38AM EDT.

The Full Moon of March on the 27th at 5:27AM EDT is referred to as the "Lenten, Sap, Crow" or "Worm Moon." Colonial Americans called it the "Fish Moon" and the Celts referred to it as the "Moon of Winds." Chinese call it the "Sleepy" Moon and medieval English named it the "Chaste Moon." To northern Michigan Anishnaabe (Chippewa and Ojibwe) it is "Bebookwaadaagame-giizis(oog)" (Snow Crust Moon).

Perigee (when the Moon is closest to Earth) is on the 5th at 6:19PM EST. The Moon will be 229,896 miles away or at a distance of 58.01 Earth radii. At apogee on the 18th at 11:13PM EDT it will be at 63.38 Earth Radii or 251,196 miles from Earth.

Planet Constellation Magnitude Moon Passage Moon Phase/Age
Sun Aquarius -26.8 3:51PM EDT, 3/11 New ~ 0 days
Mercury Aquarius +2.8 2.2°N, 6PM EDT, 3/10 Waning Crescent ~ 28.65 days
Venus Aquarius -3.9 5.9°NNW, 8AM EDT, 3/11 Waning Crescent ~ 29.24 days
Mars Pisces +1.2 4.5°NNW 8AM EDT, 3/12 Waxing Crescent ~ 0.35 days
Jupiter Taurus -2.2 1.5°S, 9PM EDT, 3/17 Waxing Crescent ~ 5.9 days
Saturn Libra +0.4 3.0°S, 10AM EST, 3/2 Waning Gibbous ~ 20.32 days
Saturn Libra +0.3 3.0°S, 4PM EDT, 3/29 Waning Gibbous ~ 17.69 days
Uranus Pisces +5.9 4.0°NNW,9PM EDT, 3/13 Waxing Crescent ~ 1.90 days
Neptune Aquarius +8.0 6.0°N, Noon EDT, 3/10 Waning Crescent ~ 28.40 days


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