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What's Up for March 2015

So. You are keen to get out there and do some observing. The stars are out. But which is which?

When you are a beginner, there's a lot to learn in a short time. But you don't have to go it alone – we're here to help. This page will get you started. Even so, the only way you can really do it is to go out and see for yourself.

Oh, the usual Health and Safety warning. It can get pretty cold out there, so put your coat on. This is not your mother talking, it just makes sense. The more comfortable you are, the better you will enjoy stargazing. Who cares if it's an anorak – no one can see you. And a bobble hat helps, too. A hoodie? That's up to you, as long as the hood doesn't cover your eyes when you look up....

You will need a star map, and you will need to know how it works. This may seem obvious, but there is a knack to understanding these things. Here's our map for this month:

Whole sky for March 2015

All maps produced using Stellarium software.

Wrong way round?

Now don't write in and tell us that we have the points of the compass all wrong. This is a map of the sky, so you have to hold it over your head. When you do this, east and west will be the right way round.

It shows the whole sky, so the scale is quite small. Normally you turn to see different parts of it, so to see the view looking north, for example, hold the map upside down with north at the bottom.

The map shows the sky in mid month at about 8.30 pm, at the start of the month at 9.30pm, or by the end of the month at 7.30 pm. All times are GMT, but remember that British Summer Time starts on Sunday 29 March so for two days you need to add an hour.

TIP If you aren't sure of the direction of north from your location, click here for a page on Getting Your Bearings.

Making sense of the stars

If it all looks just like a lot of dots, and drives you dotty, here's the way to get to grips with the sky. Once you've worked out where south is, look to the left and you should see the very bright star Sirius – actually the brightest star in the night sky. Notice we said 'night sky' so we don't get messages from smartie pants saying that the Sun is the brightest star in the sky.

Look up to the right of Sirius and you should see Orion, with its line of three stars and other stars surrounding it. The star at its top left is Betelgeuse – what astronomers call 'Bet-el-jooze' and everyone else calls 'Beetlejuice'. Ignoring this insult to a perfectly well-behaved star, look now to the left of Beetlejuice – sorry, Betelgeuse – and find another bright star, Procyon. These three stars make up what is called the Winter Triangle. You can see this area in greater detail on the map below.

Sky for March 2015

Other constellations to look for

High up above Procyon is a pair of stars called Castor and Pollux. Thank you, we've had enough jokes about star names for one month, so let's just point out that these are the main stars of Gemini, the Twins. Click to find out more about these stars and the constellation. This year, 2015, Jupiter is nearby and is outshining both of them.

Farther to the left (or the east, to be accurate) and the other side of Jupiter is the constellation of Leo. And immediately above Orion is the constellation of Auriga, with its bright star Capella, which is actually almost overhead.

The really tricky one is Cancer, the Crab. Though everyone knows its name because it's in the Zodiac, it's very hard to find if your skies are all aglow with streetlights. In fact, you can hardly see any of its stars on our map, which only shows the brighter stars. But This year Jupiter is a brilliant guide to the constellation, and it's well worth finding because it contains one of the sky's best star clusters, the Beehive. To find it, click here to find out more, and you'd better beehive yourself.

If you want a map with all the constellation names on it, click here. You can set it for any time of the night you choose.

This month's bright planets  

Just after sunset, over in the west, you'll see Venus, living up to its reputation as the Evening Star (when it isn't being the Morning Star, that is). It's the really brilliant white one that starts to become visible soon after the Sun has set, following it down to the horizon. It sets around 9.30 pm. It's still quite distant, so it just looks like a small disc through the telescope, a bit like a tiny gibbous Moon. Mars is also in the evening sky, below and a bit to the right of Venus, but you're unlikely to notice it in the twilight without a search. It's hidden by a tree on our map. It's even smaller as it's much more distant.

Jupiter photographed through a 200 mm telescope on 15 February

You can't miss   Jupiter as it's the brightest object high up in the night sky (apart from the Moon), and is brighter even than the brightest star, Sirius. It's high up in the south and is is worth looking at it through binoculars, as you should see three or four of its moons like tiny stars on either side of it. With a telescope you can see a couple of its dark equatorial belts as well. Notice that unlike Sirius it doesn't twinkle. This is because planets have tiny discs, whereas stars are points of light. Starlight is easily disturbed as it passes through our turbulent atmosphere, which is what causes twinkling.

Saturn is in the early morning sky at the moment, over in the south-east, and doesn't even rise until about 1.30 am, so if you have to get up in the middle of the night for something or other you can see it as a brightish star over in the south-east.

What about the Moon, then?

It begins the month getting close to full Moon, which is on the 5th. At this time and for a few days after its light drowns out the fainter stars and other objects, but it rises later and later until by the 11th it isn't in the evening sky at all. Next comes last quarter on the 13th. We have new Moon on the 20th, and first quarter (half Moon) is on the 27th.
We have a whole section of this site about the Moon and what to observe, so do take a look.
This may be a night-sky guide, but we still have to mention the great solar eclipse, which takes place on Friday the 20th, which of course has to be the date of new Moon – when the Moon is directly in front of the Sun. Normally it passes above or below the Sun as seen in the sky, but this month everything lines up and we see it at the exact moment of new Moon.
This time, the outer edge of the Moon's shadow crosses the UK, though not the central part where a total eclipse is visible. Everywhere in the country, and the whole of Europe, sees a partial eclipse on the morning of the 20th. Only in the North Atlantic, Faroe Islands and Svalbard will there be a total eclipse. For info on when and how to look, see our page on the eclipse. The next one visible in the UK will be in 2017, but it will cover much less of the Sun, and we won't see luch a large eclipse until 2026.

Get more helpful info

OK, you've read all this for nothing, now comes the plug. This page is brought to you by the Society for Popular Astronomy, which is a really great society to join. It's based in the UK but there are members in other countries as well. It doesn't cost much to join, and there is a special rate for Young Stargazers. At least take a look at what we have to offer. 
Text by Robin Scagell