What’s Up! March 2021

A monthly look at astronomical events in the sky and on Earth 

Compiled by John Rowland

We’ve seen quite a flurry of activity on the space front during February. More on that and what we can expect in the future later in this article.

As far as March skies are concerned, there are no significant events and four of the five brightest planets are not observable. Sorry, I can’t be more upbeat but it is what it is. Of course, we have the vernal equinox – on the 20th at 0927 – when across the world, day and night are exactly 12 hours long. This is officially the first day of spring, and to emphasise the point, the clocks go forward on the 28th.

So this could be the month for lunar observations and – during the first three weeks of the month –  catching some of the wonderful winter deep sky objects we’ve recommended in previous What’s Ups before they vanish into the sunset glow.

Each month, we aim to highlight the objects that are conveniently placed for viewing in the four-hour evening slot of 1900 – 2300 hrs unless there’s a good reason to view them earlier or later.

Please note that the clocks go forward on Sunday 28th March so in this article, any times given are in GMT (UT) up to and including the 27th and in BST from the 28th onwards.

March Objects

The Sun

The Sun remains relatively inactive. It is only just emerging from solar minimum so sunspots may be few and far between but it’s worth checking spaceweatherlive.com to see whether more activity may happen.

The Moon

The best evenings to observe the Moon are from Wednesday 17th (slender crescent) through to Wednesday 24th (mid-gibbous). For those wishing to spot the earliest crescent moon, the best time will be at about 1830 on the 14th or 15th (But see the Crescent Moon Watch page for more details.)

Mars

Mars remains observable in the evening sky throughout the month. However, it is a long way off and consequently small (5-6 arc seconds in diameter) and not very bright at around 1st magnitude.  A couple of dates worth noting are that on the 2nd to the 5th, it comes to within a 1½° of the Pleiades and on the 19th, the Moon and Mars are also only 1½° apart. For other dates, if you’re not sure where it is, there’s a finder chart here.

Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus

Unfortunately, all but Uranus are too close to the Sun to be observable this month, and Uranus is approaching it fast. If you’re dead keen to catch Uranus before next season, there’s a finder chart included on this in-the-sky.org web page.

Deep Sky Objects (DSOs)

If you look at the sky chart below (which shows deep sky objects at 6th magnitude or brighter), you’ll see that there are very few of these directly or even near to south (at 2100 on the 15th) that we haven’t covered in the February’s and January’s What’s Ups. So I’m going to recommend you have a go at the famous pair of galaxies M81 and M82. M81 is relatively easy to find, at magnitude 6.9 and near to the pan of Ursa Major.

2021-03_Fig1_MarchSky

Fig.1 Sky at 2100 on March 15th (SkyViewCafe.com) showing DSOs brighter than 6th magnitude

This perfect example of a spiral galaxy is easy to spot in binoculars and shows very well in any decent telescope. Nearby, is the irregular and cigar-shaped M82 which at magnitude 8.4 is quite a lot fainter but still within the grasp of even a modest instrument. The excellent image below of these two galaxies was taken by YAS’s Duncan Farrar from his home in Selby this January.

M81_M82_BodesGalaxy

Fig.2 M81 & M82 Bode’s Galaxy, Cigar Galaxy

The Freestarcharts web site has a good description and image, and includes the following detailed finder chart.

Messier 81 - M81 - Bode's Galaxy

Fig.3 Messier 81 – M81 – Bode’s Galaxy (freestarcharts.com/messier-81)

And for those of you with medium-to-large telescopes, whilst you’re up in that area of the sky, why not have a go at M97 (the Owl Nebula at mag 9.9), M108 (at mag 10.7) and M109 (at mag 10.6). They’re all easy to find due to their proximity to Beta and Gamma Ursa Major.

And Duncan Farrar has a good image of the Owl Nebula and both M108 and M109 on his Facebook page. It’s worth a look.

By the way, did you notice M40 on the chart above? It’s not a DSO but rather a double star – Charles Messier’s only mistake.

Man’s Space Activities

The space race has restarted. But it’s not between the USA and Russia, or Russia and China, or China and the USA. It’s between the two richest men on the planet, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon has a personal fortune of $193 billion. His aerospace company Blue Origin has plans to provide sub-orbital spaceflight services and is aiming to launch a Moon lander (Blue Moon) by 2024. In 1982 at the age of 18 he was quoted as intending “to get all people off the earth and see it turned into a huge national park”! Love him or hate him, we’ll be hearing a lot more about his exploits in the years to come.

Musk, Bezos’s arch rival is worth a mere $172 billion. In addition to his Tesla car company, he’s CEO of SpaceX whose Crew Dragon vehicle has already ferried astronauts to the ISS. His serious ambition is to build and run interplanetary missions, under his “Starship” project.

And never one to be left behind or coy, we have Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic company, who aim to begin space tourist flights this year!

Whilst it’s clear that inner space is no longer the exclusive domain of NASA, they are still the unrivalled masters of interplanetary missions. This fact is no better exemplified than their amazing Perseverance project that landed safely on Mars on February 18th. This NASA web site provides absolutely up-to-date news, pictures and videos of the landing and even includes a short sound recording in which we can actually hear the sound of a Martian breeze.

And Mars appears to be a popular destination for other spacecraft this year. Already, we have the United Arab Emirate’s Hope mission that arrived there in mid February and is already sending back images and other data. And China’s Tianwen mission entered Mars orbit on February 10th. And talking of China, did you know the Chinese are going to build a huge Earth-orbiting space station called Tianhe, the first module of which is due to be launched this month!

For we Earth-bound mortals, the nearest most of us will get to going into space is to see the ISS as it sails by.  The Heavens Above web site gives details for every date it can be seen. The link is preset to return the data for sightings from York. Use the left and right chevron buttons to change the date range.

Phew! I’m getting dizzy with all this. I wish you clear skies and good viewing. Stay safe!

John Rowland

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