Spring arrives this month, with the Vernal (spring) equinox on 20 March, when day and night are each 12 hours long. On that day, the Sun rises at about 6:20 am due east and sets at about 6:20 pm due west. From then on, the nights get shorter and the days get longer. British Summer Time (Daylight Saving Time) starts on 28 March, so it gets dark a lot later in the evening. Don’t be put off with it getting darker later and the nights becoming shorter. There is still much to see, with the bright winter constellations still visible and the constellation of Leo (The Lion) coming in to view. Now is also a great time of year to spot Zodiacal Light, the night sky’s most elusive phenomenon.
This month, the sun sets around 6:30 pm and the stars and the constellations start to become visible from about 8:30 pm onwards. If you look south, you will still see the winter constellations of Orion, Taurus, Auriga and Gemini that I described in on my “Exploring Our Night Sky: February 2021” blog at the start of last month. Bear in mind that they will have moved a little bit to the west. Also, you will now be able to see some of the spring constellations coming into view, with the most significant of these being Leo (The Lion), which will be high up in the south-east sky.
Looking North, the thing to bear in mind is that the constellations you see do not change from month to month, it is only their orientation that changes. You can find the seven stars of the Plough up in the north-east and you can use its two right-hand stars to find the Pole Star, Polaris, which is always in the same position in the sky. Just follow the line between them for about five times its length and you’ll arrive at it.
Once you’ve found Polaris, you can use it to get your bearings on any night but bear in mind that all the northern constellations rotate around it in an anticlockwise direction and therefore change their position. It is also worth noting that Polaris is not that bright, with it being about the same brightness as the stars of the Plough. Its significance comes from it being directly above our North Pole.
Polaris is a second-magnitude star, about the same as the stars in the Plough or Cassiopeia, so don’t expect anything particularly bright. It’s just by chance that this millennium it happens to be very close to the pole of the sky, but there is a slow movement of the sky over the centuries that shifts the position of the stars, and 1000 years ago it wasn’t as close as it is now.
The constellation of Auriga (the Charioteer) was pretty much overhead last month and is now starting to sink down towards the western horizon but it’s still high up. It’s in the shape of a pentagon, with Capella, one of the brightest stars in the sky, at its northern tip. Next to Capella is a triangle of three stars which, though much fainter, makes the whole constellation very recognisable. Below Auriga is the constellation of Perseus who, in Greek mythology, beheaded the Gorgon Medusa for Polydectes and saved Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus. Also, below Perseus, you may be able to pick out the W-shape of the constellation of Cassiopeia, so named after the vain queen Cassiopeia in Greek mythology, who boasted about her unrivalled beauty.
The first quarter moon is on 21 March and a few days before, on 18 March and 19 March, you’ll find the crescent moon lying close to, or in-between the Pleiades star cluster, the Hyades star cluster, Aldebaran, and Mars.
You’ll see this month’s full moon on 28 March and this last of the winter season is referred to as the Worm Moon because of the earthworms that come out at the end of winter. It is also known as the Crow Moon, Crust Moon, Sap Moon, Sugar Moon, and Chaste Moon. The Old English/Anglo-Saxon name is Lenten Moon.
The full moon on March 28 is the first of four supermoons this year and on that day, it will be 225,042 miles from Earth, it’s fourth closest approach of the year. It will therefore appear as fourth-largest and fourth-brightest moon of the year, but the best supermoon will be on 26 May, when it will be 221,117 miles from Earth.
Since disappearing from our night sky in late January, Jupiter, Saturn and Mercury are now starting to make an appearance in our south-eastern morning sky and you might see them in the hour before sunrise, but they will be very low down on the horizon.
Meanwhile, our western evening sky will have two red ‘stars’. To the left will be the red giant Aldebaran, marking the eye of Taurus the bull, while to the right lies Mars. The red planet is gradually moving away from Earth as the weeks pass, fading in brightness as is does so.
If you have a telescope, you may be able to spot Uranus lying down in the lower western sky as its current brightness means that it will be only just visible with the naked eye.
Venus and Neptune are not visible this month.
We are now in a quiet period for meteor showers, until the Lyrid meteor becomes active on 16 April. It will peak on the night of 21-22 April, the night after a first quarter Moon. This means that the moon will be quite bright, so the best time to try and spot the Lyrids will be in hour or two between moonset and dawn.
The Zodiac is an 8° wide band that straddles the ecliptic, the invisible path that the Sun traces as it moves around the sky and is the region of the sky where we can find the Sun, Moon and planets (except for Pluto). It is only 8° wide because most of the planets have orbits that are only slightly inclined to that of the Earth. The exception is Pluto, whose orbital inclination of 17° takes it out of the zodiac during part of its orbit.
At this time of year, the Zodiac rises steeply from the horizon at dusk, meaning now is great for looking out for and observing one of the night sky’s most elusive phenomena: Zodiacal Light. It is fainter than the Milky Way, so the darker your sky, the better your chances of seeing it. Go to a location with little or no night pollution, on a night when the moon is out of the sky and look for it in the west in the hour or two after sunset. If you are lucky, you may spot a faint pyramid of light rising from the horizon.
This ghostly glow is caused by light from the sun, which will be well below the horizon at that time, reflecting off a fog of tiny interplanetary dust particles that fill our inner Solar System. It’s so difficult to see and many astronomers have never witnessed it, however, I was lucky enough to spot and photograph it at Sailen nan Cuileag on a dark night last month and I’ve used the resulting image as the header photo for this blog. The conditions for spotting it are good for the next 2-3 months, so do keep an eye out for it.
Hi, I’m Steven Marshall, a Scottish landscape photographer based at Rockpool House in the heart of the beautiful West Highland Peninsulas of Sunart, Morvern, Moidart, Ardgour and Ardnamurchan. Get in touch for photography tuition, tours and print sales.