March Astronomical Highlights: Full Moons and Plenty of Messier Objects

By Kelly Kizer Whitt

This month, our days will finally become "longer." Clocks will spring forward an hour for Daylight Savings Time on Sunday, March 11. At the same time, the Northern Hemisphere is shifting from winter to spring, which means longer days are also coming naturally. The equinox falls on March 20, when the sun rises directly in the east and sets directly in the west.

For astronomers, this season means a good chance to see distant galaxies that show up in spring constellations. It's also an opportunity to spot all 160 of the Messier objects. These objects were catalogued by the French astronomer Charles Messier, who lived in the 18th and early 19th centuries. While he was searching for comets, he kept tabs of all the "faint fuzzies" he saw, unaware that they were the deep-sky delights we know now as star clusters, gaseous nebulas and galaxies.

A Messier marathon is the modern-day attempt to view as many Messier objects as possible in one night. While this is best left for veteran observers with high-powered telescopes, there are a number of easy objects you can check off with just your eyes or a pair of binoculars. Here is a handful to get you started:

  • M45: Pleiades star cluster (Taurus)
  • M42: Orion Nebula (Orion)
  • M31: Andromeda Galaxy (Andromeda)
  • M44: Beehive Cluster (Cancer)
  • M13: Hercules globular cluster (Hercules)
  • M57: Ring Nebula (Lyra)

Even though March is considered the best month for bagging all the Messier objects, some are more easily found in different seasons. The first four on this brief list should be a breeze to spot this month. One way to find Messier objects is to do a slow scan of the Milky Way with a telescope or binoculars. If you brush over a distinct gathering of stars or hazy patch of sky, you've most likely discovered a Messier star cluster or nebula.

One of the biggest hindrances to seeing deep-sky objects like Messier's non-comets is the interference of a full moon, and there will be two in March—the first is on March 1 at 4:52 p.m. PST, and the second, a Blue Moon, is on March 31 at 5:37 a.m. PDT.

Venus has been edging back into the evening sky, and in March, it should be easier to find. On March 3, Venus and Mercury will be only 1 degree apart near the western horizon after sunset. On March 18 they'll be farther apart at 4 degrees, but a crescent moon will join them, making for a pretty sight. Soon after, Mercury will sink back toward the sun, but Venus will continue to climb upwards, albeit slowly.

You'll have a chance to spot elusive Uranus at the end of the month, using Venus as a guidepost. Binoculars or a telescope are a must, especially because both planets will be near the horizon after sunset before the sky is totally dark. On March 28, find Venus in the west. You'll need a flat, clear view to the horizon to see it as it follows the sun down. Use binoculars to find a faint point of light in the field of view with Venus. This object is Uranus, a mere four arcminutes from Venus.

Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.