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March skies of the Gulf Coast

Marc Glover
This portrait is by EAAA member Marc Glover with a 4” telescope and very accurate long exposures and tracking. M-81 shows fine spiral arms of young blue stars and reddish stellar nurseries. Note the dark dust running through the center of M-82, one of the strongest radio and infrared sources in the entire sky. Also, note its warped shape, top tilted toward M-81.

For March 2022, the moon is new on March 2, and the first quarter on March 10. The Full Moon, the Worm Moon, is on March 18. The Vernal Equinox begins spring on March 20 at 10:33 a.m. The last quarter moon is on March 25. The waning crescent moon is just right of a spectacular triangle of Mars (closest to the moon), brilliant Venus, and fainter Saturn just below Venus on March 27. The Moon will be just below Saturn on March 28, and just below Jupiter in the dawn on March 30. Some great photo ops for early risers.

Mercury has a close conjunction (0.7 degree) above Saturn in the dawn on March 2, then disappears behind the Sun. Bright Venus passes above Mars in the second week of March, then reaches the greatest elongation, 47 degrees west of the Sun, on March 20. In the final week of March, Venus passes above Saturn, joined by the crescent moon as noted above the last days of the month. Jupiter is just coming out from the Sun’s glare by month’s end and will lie to the upper right of the old moon in the dawn on March 30.

While the naked eye, dark-adapted by several minutes away from any bright lights, is a wonderful instrument to stare up into deep space, far beyond our own Milky Way, binoculars are better for spotting specific deep sky objects. For a detailed map of the northern hemisphere, skies visit skymaps.com.

Orion is the most familiar winter constellation, dominating the southern sky at dusk. The reddish supergiant Betelguese marks his eastern shoulder, while blue-white supergiant Rigel stands opposite on his west knee. How bright does Betelguese appear to you tonight? In 2019-20, this famed supergiant had expanded and cooled, forming a dust envelope that has darkened much of its southern hemisphere to less than a quarter its normal brightness in visible light. Now the dust has dissipated, and it is back close to its normal brightness as the alpha star of Orion again.

Just south of the belt, hanging like a sword downward, is M-42, the Great Nebula of Orion, an outstanding binocular and telescopic stellar nursery. The bright diamond of four stars that light it up is the trapezium cluster, one of the finest sights in a telescope and among the youngest known stars.

In the east are the hunter’s two faithful companions, Canis major, and minor. Procyon is the bright star in the little dog and rises minutes before Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Sirius dominates the SE sky as darkness falls. At eight ight-years distance, Sirius is the closest star we can easily see with the naked eye from West Florida.

When Sirius is highest, along our southern horizon look for the second brightest star, Canopus, getting just above the horizon and sparkling like an exquisite diamond as the turbulent winter air twists and turns this shaft of starlight, after a trip of about 200 years.

To the northeast, look for the bowl of the Big Dipper rising, with the top two stars, the pointers, giving you a line to find Polaris, the Pole Star. Here it sits unmoving 30 degrees high in on our northern sky locally. Us your binoculars and sweep from the third through the first star of the bowl of the big dipper to the west to find two blurry galaxies, M-81, a large spiral, and smaller thin edge on irregular M-82, tidally disrupted by a recent collision with its larger neighbor.

If you take the pointers of the Big Dipper’s bowl to the south, you are guided instead to the head of Leo the Lion rising in the east, looking much like the profile of the famed Sphinx. The bright star at Lion’s heart is Regulus. The folk wisdom that “March comes in like a Lion” probably refers to the head of Leo rising just after sunset in early March below it.

The constellation Cancer lies midway between the Gemini to the west and Regulus east of it. Almost directly overhead when darkness falls at month’s end, look under dark skies for a faint blur of light in the middle of the four stars that make up the crab’s body. This is the Praespe, or Beehive, cluster, M-44, familiar to the ancients. Its blurry appearance leads Charles Messier to include it in his catalog of things that look at first like comets, but do not move and are far away among the stars and galaxies. Now check it out with binoculars, and resolve it into dozens of stars, hence the “Beehive” title.

We have set new dates for our public gazes at Big Lagoon State Park west of Pensacola for these Saturday, March 12 and 26, and April 8 and 23. Be sure to check-in at the gate before sunset.

For more information on the Escambia Amateur Astronomers and our local star gazes for the public, visit our website or join us on Facebook.

Dr. John Wayne Wooten has been teaching science since 1970, with a special concentration on astronomy. He received his Doctor of Education in Astronomy from University of Florida in 1979. He was an educator at Pensacola State College since 1974 and University of West Florida since 1984 before retiring in 2017. He still continues to teach distance learning astronomy for Tennessee colleges.