EDITOR’S NOTE: For everyone who’s wished they had advance alert of an upcoming meteor shower/eclipse/etc. – and/or wondered “What’s that bright ‘star’ up there?” – this is for you – the second edition of our new monthly feature by West Seattle’s own Solar System Ambassador Alice Enevoldsen, famous for her solstice/equinox sunset watches among other things.
By Alice Enevoldsen
Special to West Seattle Blog
Last month I encouraged you to remember to look up on clear nights (we do have them!) and enjoy our “regular” night sky. This month we have a couple of exciting events that are potentially visible from here in West Seattle. Again, be ready to take advantage of what clear skies we do have, because many March nights are too cloudy for stargazing, and you’ll have to turn to airplane-spotting or cloud identification for your nocturnal hobby.
We are incredibly lucky here in West Seattle. We have a flat Western horizon, which is where you’ll be looking for Comet PanSTARRS just after sunset. I’ve attempted to mock up a little local finding guide image for you here (editor’s note, updated image substituted 3/9/13).
(Placement of Comet PanSTARRS from West Seattle, March 2013. Background image of the Olympics © 2011 Jason Enevoldsen, used with permission)
This is just a guide: I overlaid some planetarium program imagery on a scaled photo of the Olympics. I did my best, but to really find the comet you’ll need an accurate finder chart which includes stars (Astronomy.com has one). At first, in early March, you’ll need binoculars to pick the comet out of the bright post-sunset sky. Toward mid-March it should be brighter, and possibly as bright as the middle stars of the Big Dipper. This would make it easily visible without binoculars. Comets are notably unpredictable though, almost as unpredictable as Seattle’s weather in March.
This is not “THE” comet of 2013, but it is one of the three or four comets making this the so-called Year of The Comet. It has been a while since we had a good comet. If you were old enough to be paying attention in 1995 and 1996, you’ll remember the amazing comets Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp. (In fact, the first astrophoto I ever took was of comet Hale-Bopp. The photograph turned out a horrible mess, but I was able to easily see the comet from West Seattle.)
For lots more details about Comet PanSTARRS itself, I wrote an article in mid-February over on Alice’s AstroInfo.
Equinox Sunset Watch
Well, it’s that time once again! Time for the first sunset watch since the world ended last December. I host these four times a year at Solstice Park, and we have quite the hit-or-miss record with whether we see the Sun line up with the stone marker or not. Join me on Wednesday, March 20, at 6:30 pm to see if the Sun sets over the middle stone of our “mini-Stonehenge.”
The Winter Circle
We’ve had some beautiful skies intermittently over the last few weeks. This is not surprising for winter. Believe me, I hear the disbelief in your voice there, but if we have even part of a night that is cloudless, the skies can be crystal clear due to the cold, and the winter sky is full of extremely bright stars that twinkle and sparkle like flashing LEDs. A set of these exceedingly bright stars are easily visible directly overhead as soon as it gets dark: stars from the constellations Orion, Canis Major, Canis Minor, Taurus, Auriga, and Gemini make up this pattern. This month Jupiter is also joining the mix, and the rest of Orion is in the middle. This asterism is called either the Winter Circle or the Winter Hexagon. If it is dark, just look up, you can’t miss it. Don’t worry about exactly which stars make up the circle, just enjoy the view.
Spend a few extra minutes, up to about an hour, and you’ll begin to notice that some of these bright stars have slightly different colors than the others. It takes practice to notice these colors, because they’re subtle. Once you’ve trained your eyes to notice the color though, you’ll be exclaiming about how red this star is, and how yellow that one is. Practiced astronomers call Betelgeuse in Orion a “bright red” star. To you or I, it will appear a light salmon. What colors do you notice in tonight’s sky?
Hey! What’s That?
Did you see something bright last night, and wonder what it was? It’s probably the same culprit as last month: either Jupiter or the brightest star in the night sky: Sirius. It could also be Saturn, if you’re looking at the sky after midnight or early in the morning.
March 4, Last Quarter: the week around the last quarter moon, it is visible in the early morning sky.
March 11, New Moon: the day of the new moon you won’t see the Moon at all, but in a few days before or after you might see a tiny sliver of a crescent Moon in the mid-day sky.
March 19, First Quarter: the first quarter moon is ideal for late afternoon and early evening observation.
March 27, Full Moon: The full moon rises at sunset, and sets at sunrise.
Coming Up — More Comets!
If you miss Comet C/2011 L4 PanSTARRS, you’ll have at least one more comet coming up this year that will be visible from West Seattle: C/2012 S1 ISON in November. (Aren’t these names great?*). Two other comets to pay attention to in the news are C/2012 F6 Lemmon – a beautiful green comet, visible in the Southern Hemisphere, and the newly-discovered C/2013 A1 Siding Spring which is going to pass so close to Mars that we don’t even know if it will hit the red planet or not.
*A note on comet naming: The first part of the name is the year of discovery, and the name at the end is the discoverer(s) or the telescope that conducted the survey which discovered the comet if it is not possible to name a single discoverer. PanSTARRS, ISON, and Siding Spring are all names of telescopes or programs searching for solar system objects.
Stellarium: Free planetarium software for your home computer. Bring up the sky for anywhere in the world, any time and date in history or the future.
Clear Sky Chart: The astronomer’s forecast for the next couple days. Cloudcover, darkness, and “seeing” which is how nice it is to view the stars, all on one handy chart.
USNO: Dates and times of astronomical happenings.
Who is Alice?
Alice is many things and works and volunteers for a few different notable organizations, but the suggestions and opinions put forth in this article are her own and no one else’s. You can find more about astronomy at alicesastroinfo.com.