Our Current Sky

Our Current Sky

our-current-skiesWhat’s Up in Southwest Florida’s March Skies

A Total Solar Eclipse will cross the United States on August 21, 2017.  Here in Fort Myers, FL, we are not along the path of totality, so we will see a partial eclipse. A full-country Eclipse 2017 USA map is here (opens in new tab).  An alternative map with local times is here (opens in new tab).

Friday, March 3

The Moon is at perigee, the closest point in its orbit around Earth, at 3 a.m. EST. This month’s perigee means it’s 229,324 miles (369,062 km) away, which is a fairly distant perigee for the Moon — it varies! Because the Moon’s orbit is not circular, its distance from Earth varies by about 13 percent. The only perigee farther out will occur in September, when the Moon will lie 798 miles (1,284 km) farther away.

Saturday, March 4

Around 10:30 p.m. local time look eastward for the sky’s fourth-brightest star, which will just be rising. That’s Arcturus (Alpha Boötis), the brightest star in the constellation Boötes the Herdsman. The easiest way to find Arcturus is to first find the Big Dipper, which at this time of night stands high in the northeast. The Big Dipper’s handle is curved: follow that “arc” of that curve downward and you’ll come to Arcturus. Just say, “Follow the arc to Arcturus,” to remember how to locate this orange star.

Occultation of Aldebaran: tonight the waxing crescent moon will skim close to the bright orange star Aldebaran high in the southwestern sky after sunset. Most of the world will see the star seem to graze by within half a degree of the moon, a separation just equal to the width of the full moon’s disk.  However, sky-watchers across North and Central America, Hawaii, and the western Caribbean will see our moon occult the star (block out its light!). The orange point of light that is the “red eye of Taurus the Bull” will vanish behind the dark, unlit portion of the moon and then reappear about an hour later along its illuminated crescent side. For exact occultation times for cities around the world, check out this time table from the International Occultation Timing Association.

Sunday, March 5

First Quarter Moon occurs this morning at 6:32 a.m. EST.  The half-lit orb of this first-quarter moon rises in the northeast just after noon. First Quarter means the Sun-Earth-Moon angle equals 90°. When the Earth, Moon and Sun line up (in that order), it’s New Moon. When the Moon is on the far side of Earth from the Sun (Moon, Earth, Sun in that order), that’s the Full Moon — so a full moon always lies opposite the Sun in our sky. And when the Sun-Earth-Moon angle is 270°, that’s the Last Quarter Moon. It rises at midnight and is as high overhead as it will get when dawn arrives.

Sunday, March 12 — Spring Ahead! Saving some Daylight

Daylight saving time in Florida will start at 2:00 AM on Sunday, March 12th, 2017.

Wednesday, March 15

The moon will make a celestial triangle with the planet Jupiter and the star Spica on March 15.  Pre-dawn dog walkers looking high in the the southwestern sky will see the waning gibbous moon positioned next to the largest planet in our Solar System, Jupiter. The bright star to the lower left is blue-white Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, the maiden.

Saturday, March 18 — Mercury Ascends, Venus Descends

Tonight at sunset, Mercury is finally above and to the left of Venus, both are low above the western horizon. This marks the transition from having Venus and Mars in the early evening sky (for the last couple of months!) to having Mercury and Mars in the early evening sky. Welcome back, Mercury!

Monday, March 20 — Happy Vernal Equinox!

The March equinox occurs this morning at 6:29 a.m. ET (10:29 UTC). This marks one of the four major turning points in Earth’s seasons. Earth spins on an axis that is tilted 23.5 degrees with respect to its orbit around the sun.  So twice each year, that axial tilt is at right angles to the Earth-Sun line. An equinox is one of those two points in Earth’s orbit when the planet’s axis is neither tilted away nor toward the sun. On this day, we experience roughly equal amounts of day and night. For the Northern Hemisphere, the March equinox signals the arrival of spring and the start of longer days. In the south, this equinox marks the beginning of fall. As a sky-watching bonus, this year the last quarter moon will be very close to Saturn in the pre-dawn sky of the March equinox. The pair will be less than three degrees apart and will make a beautiful sight just above the brightening horizon.

Heather Preston, Planetarium Director, Calusa Nature Center Planetarium, Fort Myers, FL

Astronomy News Bulletins:

Calvin College professor Larry Molnar and his students along with colleagues from Apache Point Observatory (Karen Kinemuchi) and the University of Wyoming (Henry Kobulnicky) are predicting a change to the night sky that will be visible to the naked eye.

“It’s a one-in-a-million chance that you can predict an explosion,” Molnar said of his bold prognostication. “It’s never been done before.”

Molnar’s prediction is that a binary star (two stars orbiting each other) he is monitoring will merge and explode in 2022, give or take a year; at which time the star will increase its brightness ten thousand fold, becoming one of the brighter stars in the heavens for a time. The star will be visible as part of the constellation Cygnus, and will add a star to the recognizable Northern Cross star pattern.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2017-01-astronomers-explosion-night-sky.html

Friday, January 13th, 2017

Get in on the Pro-Am Comet Observing Action! Remember, the campaign starts later THIS MONTH: https://astronomynow.com/2016/11/24/worldwide-pro-am-help-sought-for-comet-trio-study/. The actual page with details is at the Planetary Sciences Institute, here: http://www.psi.edu/41P45P46P

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017 Astronomy News Bulletin:

Jan 25th update from (opens in new tab) EarthSky.org:  An asteroid designated 2017 BX – found just days ago, on January 20 – passed between the Earth and moon on late Tuesday night according to clocks in the Americas. The asteroid’s closest approach was 11:45 EST on January 24, 2017 (04:45 UTC on January 25). It came within 0.68 lunar distances, or about 162,252 miles (261,120 km). Slooh broadcast a show about this asteroid last night, which you can see in the video above. Slooh said that asteroid 2017 BX has been nicknamed “Rerun” in honor of the beloved, late actor Fred Berry.


Useful Sites for Backyard Astronomers…

Here is an off-site excellent summary (opens in new page) of night sky observables this month…

The International Space Station is visible some nights, and is very bright! For specific visibility direction, greatest altitude, and time at your location: https://spotthestation.nasa.gov/sightings/

The Hubble Space Telescope is visible some nights.  For specific times and routes: http://www.heavens-above.com/