Starry Night: Early March 2012

Posted Wednesday, February 29, 2012 in Features

Starry Night: Early March 2012

courtesy NASA

by Tristan Radtke

Early March is host to the peak of a slow-moving, multi-faceted meteor shower known as the Virginids, so-called owing to the appearance of emanating comet dust from the constellation Virgo. A meteor shower which is relatively quiet, it is one of the longest continual showers, beginning in December and continuing through May. A number of the clouds of dust and rock that produce the shower strike the planet during daylight hours, mainly between December and February, and thus produce very little in terms of a noticeable shower for most viewers. However, the peak of the shower tends to be in the first fourteen days of March when a number of separate “streams” of meteors converge at once, and while not a particularly exciting shower, will produce around 20-50 meteors per hour if the conditions are right. Virgo can be found by finding the location of Saturn, which this year is rather static near Virgo’s left leg.

This month will also play host to a conjunction of planets within a few degrees of one another, including Venus, Jupiter and Uranus, providing stargazers with something to look forward to in the coming month, and a teaser of things to come later in the year, when in May and June a number of close planetary interactions will occur with even closer angle distances.

** The Stars **

Spring constellations are up now in earnest.  Look for Bootes the Herdsman and Virgo the Maiden by following the curve of the handle of the Big Dipper to Arcturus, then a straight line to Spica.  Other spring constellations that will begin to show themselves this month are Leo, the Lion, best known for its distinctive backward-question mark pattern of stars that mark the mane and the head of the beast, and the sweet open cluster, Coma Berenices, a charming crown of small stars nearly overhead at our latitude. 

** The Planets **

• Mercury: Mercury will set at about 6:30 p.m. on March 1, and by March 15 it will set around 7:30 p.m., although harder to spot due to the longevity of the Sun by mid-March.

• Venus: Venus will set around 8:50 p.m. on March 1 and may be bright enough to spot almost an hour before sunset. By March 15, it will have moved much deeper into the evening sky and into conjunction with Jupiter, setting around 10:20 p.m.

• Mars: Mars will set at sunrise on March 1, and by March 15 it will have moved just far enough to continue setting just at about sunrise, around 6:15 a.m.

• Jupiter: Jupiter will begin the month of March setting at around 9:50 p.m. and by mid-March it will set at about 10 p.m., in close proximity to Venus.

• Saturn: Saturn will rise at 9:30 on March 1, and by March 15 it will have moved very little, rising around 9:15 p.m., around the same time as Spica.

• Uranus: Uranus will start March off setting around 7:10 p.m., and by mid month will have moved into the glare of the sun.

• Neptune: Neptune will remain hidden in the Sun’s glare on March 1, and due to its dimness will remain hidden even into the middle of March when it will rise around 20 minutes before sunrise.

• Pluto: On March 1, Pluto will rise around 3 a.m., and continues that trend into mid-March, rising at 3 a.m. on March 15.

** The Moon **

The Moon will be waxing through first quarter on March 1, full on March 8, waning to third quarter on March 15 and new by March 22. It will begin waxing into April, reaching first quarter before the end of March, around March 30.

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