March - the month of change

March as befits the equinox is a month of great change. The calendar steadfastly proclaims that the first three weeks are Winter but my jonquills, snowdrops and daffodills are already pushing up through this barely thawed ground. The sky reflects this change. Already the night sky stays light leaving an ever shorter number of night time hours for viewing. The spring constellations are overhead. Winter's great constellation Orion is in the west still battling Taurus. Overhead Caster and Pollux begins their early Spring regency of the sky. Mighty Capella in Auriga is north of the battle between Orion and Taurus while the dim and almost forgotten constellation Lynx stands north of both of the brothers in Gemini.

Off to the east, Leo and his cub Leo Minor are rising. They are the constellations of later spring but anyone staying up past eleven can see them clearly. North of the lions rides the great bear Ursa Major. After the bitter cold this winter, I for one am looking forward to a series of increasingly warm (and hopefully clear) Friday nights.

If the seasons seem to change rapidly near the equinoxes, it isn't just your imagination. The days change length more rapidly at the two equinoxes than anytime else in the year. It seems hard to realize that only six weeks into Spring that the days are as long as midsummer and the Sun is as high. In the Fall, the evening hours shorten at such a pace that the Moon seems to rise at the same time for long periods giving rise to the Harvest and Hunter Moons. Spring has just the opposite problem, the days grow longer just when the Moon seems to try to rise, giving the shortest moonlit nights of the year.

I find the Spring very nostalgic when it comes to the sky. I can't wait for the nights to get warm enough for viewing but I know that the very warmth will bring mosquitoes. The cool wet nights following the swarms of twilight are enough to place the damper on the most valiant would be astronomer. This is why the dim constellations of Sextans and Cancer are almost never spotted by even fairly advanced binocular astronomers in spite of the fact that one is directly overhead and the other just slightly south of our location.

March and April are great times to look for the bright planets this year. Mercury puts in one of its brief appearances peaking near the end of March. Venus is spectacular for the whole Spring slowly increasing in brightness until it peaks in late April when believe it or not it will shine more brightly than all the stars, galaxies, and planets put together. Saturn will transit (is due south and as high as its gets) in the early evening, with Jupiter repeats with its own transit near midnight. Only Mars of the bright planets is hard to spot. It sets early in the West. You may hear about Comets Neat and Linear coming this Spring and so they will. Predictions for Linear suggest that it may be very bright - possibly as bright as Saturn with a lovely tail. Unfortunately, nothing is more likely to cause disappointment than claims that a comet will be a block buster.

All the more reason to come over to Frosty Drew Observatory on a clear Friday night when the Moon is near new. As always we welcome families, individuals, amateur astronomers and just casual observers. We welcome as well anyone who would like to become part of our group.

Leslie Coleman
Leslie Coleman
Entry Date:
Mar 1, 2004
Published Under:
Leslie Coleman's Columns
Subscribe to Leslie Coleman's Columns RSS Feed