The stars are out. You know you should be out there making great discoveries. But before you can solve the mysteries of the Universe there is another mystery. Which star 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:
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. This where a tablet comes in handy! 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 25 March so for the final week of March 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
The trouble with the real sky is that it doesn’t have all those handy labels on it. So once you’ve worked out where south is, look in that direction and you should see a very bright star, which is 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. Just be Sirius for a moment. Sorry, serious.
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.
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.
Farther to the left (or the east, to be accurate) 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 it’s well worth finding because it contains one of the sky’s best star clusters, the Beehive. To find it and for more information about it, click here, 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
Bright planets in the evening sky are in short supply this month – in fact, at the time our map shows, and even later on, there aren’t any. But earlier in the evening you might just spot Venus, which is visible low down in the west shortly after sunset. You’ll need a good western horizon with no trees or houses in the way, and a really clear sky with no haze, and even then it could be tricky to spot. So here’s a trick. Make a note of where the Sun is at about 5.30 pm, which is half an hour before sunset, but don’t look directly at it, and certainly not with binoculars or a telescope because gazing at the Sun really will damage your eyesight. Then about 45 minutes after sunset, look a little to the right of the same position, as in the diagram below, and you should be able to see Venus looking like a bright star in the twilight sky. Once you’ve found it, you might even spot Mercury, which is a lot fainter, nearby. Binoculars will help.
This trick works for most of the month, but Venus and Mercury are lower at the beginning of the month, and Mercury gets a lot lower than Venus by the end of the month. On the 19th, the thin crescent Moon is just above the position shown for the Sun and should be a lovely sight.
I know that people always like to do the opposite of what you tell them, but really, wait for the Sun to go down before you try this because in any case the sky is too bright for you to see the planets while it’s in the sky.
Jupiter rises over in the south-east just around midnight, but don’t bother waiting up for it unless you are really desperate to see it. It’ll be available earlier in the evening sky next month and for a few months to come.
Saturn and Mars are in the early morning sky at the moment, over in the south-east, and don’t even rise until about 4 am, so if you have to get up in the middle of the night for something or other you can see them as a pair of bright stars low in the south-east. Again, they’ll be in the evening sky later in the year.
What about the Moon, then?
It begins the month around full Moon, which is on 2 March. Last quarter is on the 9th, then comes New Moon on the 17th. You might just see the crescent Moon in the western twilight on the 18th about half an hour after sunset, but it will be very low down and thin, but the 19th will be better as described above. There’s first quarter on the 24th, then there’s another full Moon on the 31st. The press tend to get a bit excited about the fact that there are two full Moons this month and will point out that the one on the 31st is known as a blue Moon. Don’t tell them, but it isn’t all that special really, and probably won’t appear blue at all, though it’s always nice to see the full Moon rising. Did you know that the actual full Moon always rises exactly opposite the Sun in the sky, and at the same time? Well, you do now.
We have a whole section of the website devoted to the Moon and its features.
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