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Thursday 23 March 2017  •   25 Alder Moon 2017

Viewing the night sky in Alder Moon 2017

27 February - 27 March 2017

Map of night sky at full moon: 12 March, 14:54 UTC
Northern hemisphere perspective, aligned on the ecliptic. Morning sky to the left, evening to the right.

night sky map for Alder Moon 2017

Venus looks startlingly bright in the evening twilight as it moves round to Earth’s side of the sun. If you have good binoculars or a telescope, look to see Venus’ crescent shape. Mars is nearby, but much fainter, and hard to see in the twilight. On 1 Mar, the equally crescent moon is to the south of Venus and Mars. Mars is not a crescent, as its orbit is outside that of Earth’s and it is in fact over towards the far side of the sun. As usual, we see it looking pretty much full. Towards the end of the month, Venus disappears into the sunset, and passes the sun on 25 March. It will emerge next month into the dawn.

Jupiter rises mid-evening, and shines very brightly for the rest of the night in the constellation Virgo, its brightness increasing, its brightness increasing from magnitude minus 2.32 to minus 2.44 during the month, as its distance from Earth decreases. The moon passes to its north on 14 Mar.

Saturn rises in the early hours, and can be seen in the SE morning sky in the constellation Sagittarius. The waning half moon is near on 20 Mar.

The early evening sky at this time of year is particularly rich in stars, with the glorious constellations of Orion and Taurus pretty much visible from all parts of the Earth, and the richness of the plane of our galaxy, the Milky Way, runs between them and Gemini, with its bright stars Castor and Pollux. Scan the Milky Way with a pair of binoculars for an endless view of starfields. Follow the belt of Orion to find the very bright and relatively near star Sirius. The next brightest star, Canopus, south of Sirius, is actually 10,000 times as bright as the sun, and is the monster of this part of our galaxy, but it is a very long way away. You can see it if you are south of 37°N.

South of 29°N, you can see Alpha Centauri in the morning sky. At 29°N, it makes a brief appearance in the southern sky just before dawn. Proxima Centauri, our current nearest star other than our sun, is likely to be in very slow orbit of the double star Alpha Centauri. You’d need a good telescope to see it, and even that wouldn’t show you its apparently Earth-like planet, Proxima b, which may well be the destination of probes sent from Earth in the decades to come.

The month ahead: Willow Moon 2017

28 March - 26 April 2017

Map of night sky at full moon: 11 April, 06:08 UTC
Northern hemisphere perspective, aligned on the ecliptic. Morning sky to the left, evening to the right.

night sky map for Willow Moon 2017

Jupiter comes to opposition on 7 April, and its nearest to Earth this year on 8 April, when it is 666 million kilometres, or 37 light minutes away. Jupiter rises around sunset and shines very brightly indeed all night. The very nearly full moon passes close to its north on 10 April. The Juno probe orbiting Jupiter should still be sending back lots of photos and other data about the huge planet, so large that it is easily twice as big as all the other planets in our system put together.

On 1 April, Mercury reaches very nearly 19°E of the sun in the western evening sky. Mercury doesn’t come out far from the sun, but the view is pretty good from the northern hemisphere. The planet is almost impossible to see from Earth’s south. The new moon is well south of Mercury on 29 Mar.

Further out from the sun, but quite a bit less bright, is Mars, on its journey round to the other side of the sun. This journey is slower than that of the outer planets, because Mars moves relatively quickly against the stars in the same direction as the sun’s faster apparent motion. The new moon is nearby on 30 March.

In the first part of the month, Venus is out of view on this side of the sun, but soon emerges brightly into the dawn, easier to see at first from the southern hemisphere. By the end of the month, Venus is very bright and prominent in the morning sky, albeit low down as seen in northern skies, with the old moon nearby on the mornings of 23 and 24 April.

Saturn grows gradually brighter during the month. It rises after midnight in the constellation Sagittarius. On 6 April, Earth catches up sufficiently in its orbit, and Saturn starts heading slowly back westwards, towards Ophiuchus. The moon is nearby on 16 & 17 Apr.

Look out for the Lyrid meteors on 22 & 23 April, especially early in the night when the moon is out of the way.

William Morris
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