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March Skies of the Gulf Coast

Marc Glover
Comet 2022 E3 (ZTF) was captured January 30, with the yellowish “anti-tail” appearing to fan sunward to lower left, the famed “green comet coma” in the center, and a thin blue ionized gas tail splitting the arrowhead-shaded yellowish dust tail to top right, pointing away from the Sun. EAAA member Marc Glover used his 8” wide-angle telescope to make this digital image, one of the best ever made of a comet in history. The comet was then closer to us than any planet ever gets, but still more than 100X more distant than our own Moon.

For March 2023, the Full Moon, the Worm Moon, is on March 7. The last quarter is on March 14. The Vernal Equinox begins spring on March 20 at 4:24 p.m. The new moon is on March 21. The waxing crescent moon marking the beginning of Ramadan passes Jupiter on March 22 and passes Venus the following two evenings. It passes Mars on March 27 and is the first quarter the following evening.

Mercury has a close conjunction (1.3 degrees) to the right of Jupiter in twilight on March 27. Jupiter will be lost in the Sun’s glare by April, but Mercury rising higher in the southwest for the first week of April. Bright Venus passes just .5 degrees (the diameter of the full moon) to the right of Jupiter as the month begins, a spectacular conjunction for the naked eyes, binocs, and small scopes. By month’s end, Venus will be 30 degrees higher as we lose Jupiter into the Sun’s glare. Venus dominates the western sky for the next several months. Mars is overhead as March begins, but losing ground to the Sun. Saturn reappears low in the dawn by month’s end, and will be close to the waning crescent in the dawn on March 19 — you will probably need binocs to spot both.

Visit the skymaps.com for a map of the skies.

South of Gemini, 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 it 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 are 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 southeast sky as darkness falls. At eight light 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.

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 the Lion’s heart is Regulus, the “regal star.” 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 lead 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!”

If you follow the handle of the Big Dipper to the south, by 9 p.m. you will be able to “arc to Arcturus”, the brightest star of Spring and distinctly orange in color. Its color is an indication of its uniqueness. Its large speed and direction through the Milky Way suggests it was not formed with our Galaxy, but is a recent capture from the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy, a smaller satellite galaxy now being assimilated by our huge spiral galaxy. Many of its lost stars, like Arcturus, follow a band across the sky at about a 70 degree angle to our galactic plane.

We have set new dates for our public gazes at Big Lagoon State Park west of Pensacola for these Saturdays: March 12 and 26, and April 8 and 23. Be sure to check in at the gate before sunset. Tentative Pensacola Beach Pavilion stargazes (pavilion near the Beach Ball Water Tower) Friday and Saturday nearest first quarter moon: April 28 and 29, May 26 & 27, June 23 & 24, July 28 & 29, August 25 & 26, and September 22 @ 23.

For more information on the Escambia Amateur Astronomers and our local star gazes for the public, visit eaaa.net 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.