March: Venus, Comets and Clusters

March 2009

Venus, Comets and Clusters

By Calvin L. Chrisman

The month of March offers several very special celestial sights. Venus is at an eight-year peak, comet Lulin is rapidly receding, but still visible in binoculars or small telescopes with a little careful searching  and, at the end of the month, the crescent moon will be visible near the Pleiades. If the sky stays clear, plan to go outside.

Venus is approaching a position called inferior conjunction on March 27th. All during the month, it will be extraordinarily bright and, in binoculars or small telescopes, will be a very thin crescent. The crescent will be at its largest from the middle to the end of the month and very sharp-eyed observers may be able to detect it with the naked eye! One interesting aspect of Venus’s current position is that for three days from March 22 to March 24, it should be visible in both the morning and evening sky as it passes eight degrees north of the sun. Because Venus is never far from the sun, we always see it as the morning star or the evening star. It is interesting that some ancient cultures had different names for this planet when it was visible in the morning or the evening; not realizing that it was the same object.

Comet Lulin has been putting on a show for sky observers since the beginning of January. It passed opposition (its brightest point) on February 25th. Its orbit is in the exact opposite direction of Earth, and so it will move away and fade rapidly. However, it should be visible in binoculars and telescopes through the end of March. To find it, you will need to check one of the astronomy websites such as SkyandTelescope.com which will give detailed charts to help you. These sites will also have some dramatic pictures of what is a very pretty comet.

One of the most pleasing sights in the night sky is the open cluster called the Pleiades. They are said to be the seven sisters riding on the shoulder of Taurus the bull. Shortly after dark on the evenings of March 29th and 30th, the waning crescent Moon will be visible on either side of the Pleiades. It is a naked eye sight that will be well worth a trip outside. Look West.

In an early sign of spring, don’t forget to set your clocks ahead one hour on the early morning of March eighth. March also marks the official arrival of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Astronomically speaking, it will happen at 7:44 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Friday the 20th. This is the Spring (or Vernal) Equinox when the Sun crosses the equator on its journey north.

Clear Skies!

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