March Star Gazing: Jupiter & the Orion Nebula

Venus (magnitude -4) will continue to be the bright morning star close to the eastern horizon during March. With a little luck, you’ll be able to see Mercury between Venus and the rising sun. Look for both planets around 6 am.

If you’re up that early, you can also look for Saturn and Mars flanking the moon. Saturn will be on the left of the moon, and Mars is the reddish object on the right. Don’t confuse Mars with the red star Antares which will be located between the moon and the horizon.

Mars (+0.3) is brighter than Antares (+0.1), but they’re still easy to get confused. Apparently, ancient astronomers also had some problems with confusing the two, therefore the name Antares means “rival of Mars.”

Jupiter will rise about 6:30 pm, starting March 1. At magnitude -2.5, it looks like a very bright star on the eastern horizon. If you view it with a pair of binoculars or a telescope you should be able to see its bands. On a good night, you might spot several of its larger moons.

Jupiter and its moons

Jupiter and its four moons. Photographed by Gerry Lebing.

The large white disk, is an over-exposed Jupiter. The smaller ones are four of Jupiter’s moons — Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto (in the lower right corner). They’re called the Galilean satellites to honor Galileo who first discovered them in 1610.

Jupiter

Jupiter. Photographed by Gerry Lebing.

March 9 will be the best night of the year to view or photograph Jupiter. It will be at its closest point to the Earth and fully illuminated by the sun. Its famous red spot will be visible after 1:30 am.

Orion, the hunter, continues to be the most prominent constellation in the southern skies. M42, the Orion Nebula, surrounds the second star in the sword. That’s not the only nebula in the Orion Constellation. The first star in his belt is surrounded by two other famous nebulae, the Flame Nebula and the Horse Head Nebula. Neither one is visible by the unaided eye. They’re both difficult to view even through a telescope, but if you can get a good glimpse of them, consider yourself very fortunate.

M42

Orion Nebula (M42). Photographed by Gerry Lebing.

Many astronomers consider M42 as one of the best deep space objects out there for either viewing or photographing. Located in the sword of the constellation Orion, it’s very easy to find. M42 is bright enough that you can see it without a telescope or binoculars, however, it’s best if you were in any area of dark sky (i.e. little to no light pollution).

If you have access to a good telescope on a computer guided mount, you might want to try and do a Messier Marathon on March 6. There are 110 deep sky objects in the Messier catalog, and you might be able to see all of them that night. If you don’t have the telescope, there will still be several celestial bodies for you to find. I’ve done one of these before, and I found it very enjoyable and educational. (Tip: If you can, include your kids!) To pull this trick off, however, you need to start as early as possible with objects nearest the western horizon. Then, progress through the list.

Happy star gazing!

 

All photos are by Gerry Lebing, a retired computer scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and has taken up astronomy as a serious hobby. You can send him questions about the night sky by emailing him, gerry@wmi.org.

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