There is a marvelous miscellany of remarkable astronomical events in the second half of March.
In our discussions here, we’ll start with those involving the moon and planets, move on to one connected with the sun and season, and conclude with the pretty but elusive comet known as Pan-STARRS.
With a little luck and preparation these next two weeks, you might still see the comet and possibly glimpse a Northern Lights display.
And even though Friday’s closest pairing of two planets in 71 years appears too near to the sun for us to see, it certainly is fascinating to hear about.
Moon visits planets, hides star: If last night had been clear, we could have seen a striking, close meeting of the moon and Jupiter. If it doesn’t clear until early this week, the separation of the two will by then be large.
But you should have little trouble finding Jupiter — it’s currently the brightest point of light in the evening sky. Jupiter now begins to move very slowly away from the bright star Aldebaran, orange eye of Taurus the Bull, but for the next two weeks the planet is only about 5 degrees — or about half the width of your fist at arm’s length — from the star.
If you have a telescope, you can try to see a “5th-magnitude” star in Orion pass right behind the dark edge of the half-lit moon tonight. Start looking no later than 11 p.m. The star should wink out of view behind the moon about five minutes later for observers in New Jersey.
The moon is full just before dawn on the night of March 26. Around 11 p.m. on March 28, the moon is upper right from Saturn and the next day at that time, Good Friday, it is rising straight below Saturn.
The closest meeting of two planets since 1942: Jupiter shines bright in the first half of our current nights, Saturn in the second half.
But, remarkably, the other five of Earth’s seven fellow planets are either unviewable or nearly so this month.
What’s really rare is the fact that this Friday two of the unobservable planets — too near the sun in our sky to see — engage in the closest meeting of any two planets at any time from 1942 to 2022.
The planets are Mars and Uranus, and they will be separated by less than 1/125th of the width of your little finger held at arm’s length. If they didn’t set so soon after the brilliant sun, a telescope would show their globes separated by little more than the current apparent width of Jupiter in the telescope.
Spring and possible Northern Lights displays: The sun reaches the March equinox point in the heavens at 7:02 a.m. on Wednesday, March 20, officially beginning spring in the Northern Hemisphere.
Around the equinoxes is a prime time for displays of Northern Lights, caused by “solar activity.” Indeed, if it hadn’t been cloudy Friday night, even southern New Jersey may have seen the eerie Northern Lights.
You can be advised of more such chances by checking out www.spaceweather.com each day.
The elusive beauty of comet Pan-STARRS: I and other experienced observers are coming out of a week of captivating sightings of Comet Pan-STARRS.
Unfortunately, the comet’s position low in evening twilight, always in a bright sky, has made it difficult for any beginner to find even with binoculars.
Now, as the comet lingers a bit higher and longer after the sun, it is due to fade, keeping its beauty a sight primarily for binoculars and telescopes. If you want to hunt for it, you can find a good finder chart at www.skyandtelescope.com.
At that site and spaceweather.com, you can also find numerous amazing photos and videos of Pan-STARRS from this past week. These should inspire you to make the effort. Write to me if you see the comet.
Two Mondays from now, this column will share the adventures you and I have had with this celestial visitor.
Fred Schaaf is a local author and astronomer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org