Night Lights: Spring coming in like a lion — March yourself outside to catch the highlights of stargazing

Photo courtesy of Andy Veh. A lunar eclipse is coming up March 23, but don’t get too excited —it won’t be as spectacular as this one from October 2014.

Photo courtesy of Andy Veh. A lunar eclipse is coming up March 23, but don’t get too excited —it won’t be as spectacular as this one from October 2014.

By Andy Veh, for the Redoubt Reporter

The constellation that always catches my eye in March is Leo, its shape quite closely resembling that of a male lion lying leisurely, watching the savannah, looking west, in the direction that it will move toward during the next couple of months. Its right front paw is the bright star Regulus.

While Leo should move across the sky as gingerly as any constellation week after week, it seems to be much speedier than others. What aids this perception is that sunset occurs later and later, about 20 minutes each week. Thus, with it getting darker later every evening, it seems that Leo keeps progressing across the sky faster (because we look at it later when it already has moved farther west).

As a result, I perceive Leo as the harbinger of spring —when it appears in the east, winter’s end will soon be here, and when it reaches the western horizon, flowers are in full bloom and deciduous trees will have regained their leaves.

Leo with Regulus follows the bright stars of winter (perhaps chasing them off). Sirius is low in the south and quite prominent, but even being the brightest star in the sky, as seen from our solar system, it’s no match for the brightness of Jupiter and Venus. Ahead of Sirius are Betelgeuse, Rigel, Pollux, Castor, Capella, Aldebaran and Procyon, all of them appearing above the southern horizon.

Bright stars in the remaining sky are Deneb and Vega in the north and Arcturus and Spica rising in the east in the late evening, the latter close to Mars. The waning third-quarter moon is near Mars on Feb. 29. Saturn is following on their heels with the same third-quarter moon nearby on March 2.

Jupiter has been appearing all winter long and has been well positioned above the southern horizon for quite some time, between Leo’s Regulus and Virgo’s Spica. The full moon appears to the right of the giant planet March 22 and to its left March 23, showing nicely by how much our moon orbits within 24 hours.

Just as I described last month, try this before and during dawn — from left to right (east to west) along the southern horizon, stretch a line with almost equal distances from Saturn to reddish Mars to Virgo’s Spica, very bright Jupiter and Leo’s Regulus. Four of these five are similar in brightness, with Jupiter being much brighter.

Daylight saving time begins March 13. During the 2015 legislative session, Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, introduced Senate Bill 6 to exempt Alaska from daylight saving time and the U.S. Department of Transportation to change the time zones of Alaska. There is no new update on the bill so far this session.

Spring begins in the northern hemisphere March 19, the equinox being defined as equal times of 12 hours, zero minutes each for day and night. Since the full moon is March 22, Easter occurs relatively early, March 27. The Easter formula (called “Computus”) was derived by the eminent German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, based on the principle that Easter should be the Sunday after the full moon that follows the northern spring equinox.

A total solar eclipse will occur March 9, but only for Indonesia and large parts of the Pacific. It will be a partial eclipse in parts of eastern Asia and Australia, and even in Alaska. However, for us the sun and moon will be very low on the western horizon before sunset. Still, I will give it a try between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. March 8 (due to the time difference to southeast Asia, our date is earlier, so to say) on the viewing platform on Bridge Access Road, which is a very good spot for having no obstructions toward the western horizon — with the exception of Mount Redoubt, of course. First contact — when the moon starts to eat the sun — should be at 4:38 p.m. Come on by.

There will also be a penumbral lunar eclipse March 23. While the entire eclipse can be viewed from Alaska, the time of night is not favorable — 1:30 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. On top of that, “penumbral” means that the Earth blocks the sun only partially, so the moon doesn’t get that much darker (for a description, see earthsky.org/space/what-is-a-penumbral-eclipse-of-the-moon).

Lunar eclipses are not that rare, so I will opt to get some sleep and catch the next good one in Alaska, which will be in January 2018.

  • Veh will hold an astronomy class from 7 to 9 p.m. Feb. 23 in Room 188 at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus through Soldotna Community Schools. Come dressed to go outside if skies are clear. On March 1, also from 7 to 9 p.m. in Room 188, Veh will give a presentation explaining Einstein’s theory of special relativity. The classes are free and open to the public.

Andy Veh is an associate professor of physics, math and astronomy at Kenai Peninsula College.

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