Status Report

The Sky This Week 2004 March 12 – March 19

By SpaceRef Editor
March 14, 2004
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The Moon wanes in the morning sky this week. New Moon occurs on the 20th at 12:41 pm Eastern Standard Time. Luna skirts the southern horizon during the pre-dawn hours, opening the week coursing through the summer constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius. Her last slender crescent will probably be seen before dawn on the 17th, as she wends her way through the star-poor reaches of Capricornus.

This is the time of year that many amateur astronomers long for. The nights aren’t quite as frigid as those of January and February, and the overnight hours bring some of the best hunting grounds for distant galaxies available to the modest telescope owner. The region that’s on the meridian at midnight is perpendicular to the plane of the Milky Way, and it also happens to be the location of the heart of the Virgo galaxy Cluster. From a dark-sky location, the owner of a six- or eight-inch telescope can sweep up dozens of faint smudges of amorphous light in the region bounded by the bright stars Spica and Regulus and the Big Dipper asterism. Our Milky Way is an outlier of this cluster, located some 50 million light years from its hub. The Virgo Cluster is itself part of an even grander scheme, but there’s plenty to see within the confines of our little corner of the Universe.

Venus continues to dazzle in the western evening sky. More and more people are noticing it now as the weather grows gradually milder. Venus is currently shining at close to her theoretical brightest limit, and viewers in dark-sky locales can see their faint shadows cast by her glow. For the next several weeks she’ll continue to move northward and pull further from the Sun. In another week or so she will lead a parade of all five visible planets, which will grace our skies for the first two weeks of spring.

As Venus dazzles, Mars fades. The red planet can still be easily found as a rather nondescript pinkish object about 15 degrees above Venus. He’s making his way through the western reaches of the constellation of Taurus, the Bull, and by the end of the week he cozies up to the Pleiades star cluster.

Saturn is now slowly starting his eastward plod through the stars of Gemini, the Twins. The ringed planet is still very well placed for viewing in the early evening, and the current Sun-Earth-Saturn geometry produces an almost 3-D effect from the shadow of the planet’s sphere on the rings. I never tire of looking at this distant world, especially through the Observatory’s big telescopes, where he seems to sit serenely surrounded by his bevy of moons.

Jupiter is just past his opposition, and he supplants Saturn as the main target of interest by about 9:00 pm. This majestic world is an interesting sight in any type of optical device. His four bright moons are visible in binoculars, while almost any small telescope will show his main dark cloud belts. Look for his most famous feature, the Great Red Spot, on the evenings of the 15th and 17th.

For information on MARS ROVER ACTIVITIES this week, click

For information on BRIGHT SATELLITES passing over Washington, DC this week, click

For more information eclipses, click

For more information on meteor showers, click

For more information on observable comets, click

For pictures of Comet Hale-Bopp, click

For more information on the digital planet pictures on this page, click

SpaceRef staff editor.