Signs of Spring

With the icy grip of snow, ice and bone-chilling temperatures keeping most of us indoors at night, the change of season on the way this month. The Spring Equinox occurs on March 20 at 9:37 UT. The Equinox both Spring and Fall are the best chance to glimpse the ghostly Zodiacal Light, a slanted triangle column of interplanetary dust scattered by the sun. For two weeks starting March 1, you can glimpse or even photograph this elusive glow seen after evening twilight. Dark country skies and the absence of all light sources including moonlight will reward you with faint light appearing to point to the Pleiades star cluster. Another two-week period occurs at the end of the month after the full moon.

The Messier list is a collection of 110 celestial objects comprised of open star clusters, globular clusters, nebulae and remote galaxies. This number represents the brightest or near brightest as seen in earlier telescopes of antiquity. This is a far cry from the countless hundreds of objects modern scopes and photography can see and image. Many of the Messier objects are the favourite targets at public star parties and a great way for beginners to hunt the wonders of the night.

One roadblock to seeing a certain object is its proximity to the sun. If a particular object is too close to the solar glare, one must wait a few weeks for the earth to move away from the glare in its yearly orbit around the sun. But there is a time of year where all 110 objects can be glimpsed if you are up for the Messier Marathon.

March is always the month but the optimal night varies as to when the moon is at new phase. The marathon usually takes place on a weekend closest to the new moon. This is an all-night event from dusk till dawn and would be difficult to achieve when you must wake up for work or school. This year’s weekend of choice is the night of March 13/14 which happens to coincide with the exact date of the new moon. However, time is of the essence and following an exact order of objects (link above) maximizes your chances of accomplishing the marathon in one night. You must begin with the spiral galaxy M77 as the sky darkens in the west and battling a brightening eastern sky as dawn approaches by ending the list with the globular cluster M30. This is the same weekend that most of Canada will be advancing the clocks by one hour as we move Daylight Saving Time (DST).

Another change you will notice is the constellations themselves. As of the beginning of March Scorpius is seen low in the southeast and Cygnus low in the northeast around 3:30 a.m. and appear two hours earlier by April 1. From a dark location, you should be able to glimpse the Milky Way stretching above the treetops from the countryside. As weeks and months tick by, the band of stars will rise earlier and will be swatting mosquitoes before you know it.

The Full Worm Moon occurs on March 28 at 18:48 UT. With that said Easter is one of the holidays that varies with the lunar cycle. It always occurs on the Sunday after the full moon following the Spring Equinox. This year we will be celebrating Easter on April 4.           

Until next month, clear skies everyone.

Gary Boyle

eNews date: 
Monday, March 1, 2021