StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley

MARCH  2012


Print Large Sky Charts For 9 p.m. EDT:   NORTH | EAST | SOUTH | WEST | ZENITH

[Moon Phases]
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Status Current Moon Phase
811    MARCH 4, 2012:   Busy Week for the Planets
Last week on the night of the Oscars, Hollywood wasn’t the only town putting on a show. Outside in the deepening velvet sky, Venus, Jupiter, and a thin crescent moon formed a loose triangle above the treetops to my west. They had been visible the two nights previously. On February 25, a thinner moon stood above and to the right of Venus; and the most spectacular of the three evenings, February 24, saw a razor thin smiley moon below Venus. The planets and the moon are wanderers, moving among the fixed stars and among themselves, sometimes creating impressive gatherings. The moon has continued roaming eastward, increasing in brightness, leaving a tightening Jupiter and Venus in the west after dusk. At the beginning of this week they are only seven degrees apart, but by the week’s end, that distance shrinks to only three degrees as Venus passes Jupiter and takes the lead in the evening sky. However, there is more action in the deepening twilight this week. Mercury can also be seen if your western horizon is unobscured and the evening is very clear. On March 5, fifty minutes after sunset, Mercury will be due west, low to the horizon. It should be easy to spot with binoculars, but the real challenge will be trying to see Uranus about 2.5 degrees to Mercury’s left and slightly below it. The pair is separated by four degrees by March 8 with Uranus still left of Mercury, but now 3.5 degrees below the Messenger God. Keep your eyes on the moon because its wanderings will help you spot reddish Mars on Wednesday. A full moon will rise in step with Mars and be next to the War God all night. By 11 p.m., look for late bloomer, Saturn, left of the blue supergiant, Spica, low in the ESE. Saturn will just be a bit brighter, and like all planets, it will be shining with a steadier light. In one week, or even one night, you can see all the naked eye planets and more.

[Moon,Venus, and Jupiter]
The moon, Venus, and Jupiter created an impressive sight during twilight on Oscar evening, February 26. Not only were the stars shining in Hollywood, but they were complimented by an impressive evening display of the three brightest objects of the night. Photography by Gary A. Becker, Coopersburg, PA...

812    MARCH 11, 2012:   Chachapoyas or Bust
In the litany of psyching myself for summer, it begins with the first day of March, continues with setting the clocks ahead (March 11), with the beginning of spring (March 19), with Easter (April 8), and culminates with Memorial Day (May 28). When I was working in the public schools, there was still almost four weeks of teaching remaining before the big summer break, but somehow Memorial Day, with its cookouts and outdoor activities, captured best the spirit of summer. In my crazy way of marching towards those “lazy days,” we have straddled the first two hurdles and are now headed for the vernal equinox late on March 19, when the sun will shine directly over the equator. For my former student, Sarabeth Brockley, who is now in the Peace Corps stationed in Chachapoyas, Peru, six degrees south of the equator, the magic moment of a zenith sun already happened on March 4. What does this mean for us living at a mid-latitude location of 40 degrees north? When Sarabeth saw a zenith sun, it was only 44 degrees above the horizon at noon, still snow time for us. On the Vernal Equinox, after 16 days of climbing, the sun will stand at an altitude of 50 degrees at 1 p.m., EDT. That’s a six degree jump in just under 2-1/2 weeks. By Good Friday, April 6, a 17-day interval, the sun will rocket another six degrees northward, gaining a degree in altitude in our sky for each degree that Sol treks northward. On that day the sun will reach a height of 56 degrees, a 12 degree jump in just one month’s time. For Sarabeth, the sun will be 12 degrees lower in her sky, transiting in the north at 78 degrees, but her equatorial location will always preclude warm conditions. In fact, her situation would be downright miserable if it were not tempered by Chachapoyas’ 7,700 foot elevation. Happy summer, Sarabeth, in a land where it’s always summertime…

[Venus, and Jupiter]
Venus (bottom right), and Jupiter bathed in moonlight created a beautiful couple during late twilight on March 6. The distance between the planets continues to narrow. Note two of Jupiter’s four Galilean satellites, Ganymede (above) and Callisto (below) on each side of the Giant Planet. Photography by Gary A. Becker, Coopersburg, PA...

[Venus, and Jupiter]
Venus (right), and Jupiter are grouped into a tight configuration during the early evening of March 10. Their separation was about four degrees. By Tuesday the 13th, US observers will see the two planets side by side and about one degree closer. Two 30 second images, one following the stars and the other with the drive stopped, were combined digitally to create this picture. Photography by Gary A. Becker, Coopersburg, PA...

[Venus, and Jupiter]
Venus (right), and Jupiter 8:25 p.m., EDT, March 11, 2012... The separation of the two planets had narrowed by a half degree between today and yesterday. A Canon 60D coupled with a 70-200mm telephoto lens was set at F/4, ASA 400, for this 25 second exposure. The EFL of the image was 112mm. To help correct for the effects of a high pressure sodium vapor lamp 60 feet away, the color temperature of the sensor was set to 3400K. After an initial 25 second exposure, the drive was turned off and the camera focused for the nearby trees about 50 yards away. The image was then taken again. The two images were combined using Paint Shop Pro and Adobe Photoshop. Thank goodness for digital photography. Image by Gary A. Becker, Coopersburg, PA...

[Venus, and Jupiter]
Venus (above) and Jupiter just keep moving along doing their dance. 8:27 p.m., EDT, March 14, 2012... The separation of the two planets was just over three degrees. A Canon 60D coupled with a 70-200mm telephoto lens was set at F/4, ASA 400, for this 30 second exposure. Sky conditions were very exceptionally clear. The EFL of the image was 112mm. To help correct for the effects of a high pressure sodium vapor lamp 60 feet away, the color temperature of the sensor was set to 3400K. After an initial 30 second exposure, the drive was turned off and the camera focused for the nearby trees about 50 yards away. Another 30 second image was then taken. The focused trees of the second images were combined with the first image using Paint Shop Pro and Adobe Photoshop. Photography by Gary A. Becker, Coopersburg, PA...

813    MARCH 18, 2012:   Round Two for the Moon and Planets
I have derived a great deal of pleasure watching Venus and Jupiter during the past month. On the last weekend in February, Oscar weekend, in fact, the crescent moon played among the pair, first below as the thinnest of crescents in the evening haze, then among Venus and Jupiter for two nights, and finally, up—up and away from the pair. During this time period, Venus was narrowing her distance from Jupiter. The Goddess of Beauty “snuck” up to within three degrees of the King of the Gods on the evening of March 13. Since the 13th, Venus has taken the lead, moving ahead of Jupiter. If you missed the first act last month, there is a smashing sequel starting late this week, as the moon emerges in the west to start its newest cycle of phases. Sunday, at dusk, finds Venus standing just over five degrees above and to the right of Jupiter. Still higher, by some 15 degrees, are the bluish Pleiades, the brightest and best open cluster of the heavens. It was a place of stellar birth 115 million years ago. Check them out with binoculars, and you will see a tiny dipper-like grouping of stars among the many fainter cluster members. The unaided eye will see the Pleiades as a fuzzy glow. In just a fortnight, Venus will graze the southern boundary of the Pleiades during the early evening hours of April 2-3. During the week, watch as Venus increases her distance from Jupiter. Then on Friday, March 23, a razor thin, two percent lit crescent moon reappears in the west. Catch it before it sets by 8:40 p.m. Two nights later, the moon has grown to a 10 percent lit crescent just to the right of Jupiter. The next evening, a slightly brighter horned moon is the same distance from Venus, only this time to the left. By April 3 the bright, waxing gibbous moon passes Mars and reaches Saturn by April 6. It’s a repeat of last month’s traveling moon story, and it will happen again in late April. Good observing!

[Venus,and Jupiter]
Venus (above) and Jupiter on the evening of March 21 during late twilight... Photography by Gary A. Becker, Coopersburg, PA...

814    MARCH 25, 2012:   Titanic Sky
It is difficult to think of a more terrible way of dying than what was suffered by the passengers of the Titanic one hundred years ago this April 15. The temperatures of the black North Atlantic, where the great ship sank, were between 28 and 31 degrees F. Once in the water, individuals would have died of hypothermia or cardiac arrest within minutes. For the survivors in lifeboats huddling to stay warm in the dark, the moonless sky may have been equally frightening. The Titanic was sailing under a huge high pressure dome of air. The ocean was calm, and the night sky was perfectly clear. Survivor Lawrence Beesley wrote, “…the stars, clustered so thickly together that in places there seemed almost more dazzling points of light set in the black sky than background of sky itself.” Stars “…near the clear-cut edge of the waterline… lost none of their brilliance.” The Titanic sank at 2:20 a.m. at a latitude equal to that of Nantucket, MA, but 21 degrees to the east. The sky, indeed, would have been ablaze with stars as Beesley wrote. The summer Milky Way would have been prominent, stretching from the north to nearly the zenith, and intersecting the horizon in the south. The Great Summer Triangle would have been high in the east, the summer constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius standing out against the southern horizon. Jupiter would have been to the east (left) of the Scorpion’s brightest star, red Antares. Arcturus of Bootes and Spica of Virgo would have been settling in the west. People would have begun to notice the first light of dawn less than an hour later. Beesley wrote about how the stars died, “…save one which remained long after the others just above the horizon; and near by, with the crescent (moon) turned to the north, and the lower horn just touching the horizon, the thinnest, palest of moons.” The last star to “die” was the planet Venus, the first star of our present evening sky.

[Moon and Venus]
The moon should be smiling next to a beauty like Venus. However, it was a cold, cold smile. March 26 turned out to be a real shocker after weeks of warmth. It was blustery and bright during the day—a hard freeze for the night, with Dogwood in full bloom because of May temperatures in March. This equatorially mounted 8 second image was taken with a Canon 70-200mm zoom lens with a 2x extender at an EFL of 430mm, ASA 400. Photography by Gary A. Becker, Coopersburg, PA...

[March Star Map]

[March Moon Phase Calendar]