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….
During March we get the spring equinox, which is when day and night are each 12 hours long. So the Sun rises at 6 am due east and sets at 6 pm due west. From now on the nights get shorter, and BST (British Summer Time, or Daylight Saving Time) starts at the end of the month so it gets dark a lot later in the evening. So make the most of March for stargazing! Just don’t expect the weather to be summery when it’s Summer Time!
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 28 March so for that day only 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
The only bright planet on our map is Mars, and sad to say, if you’re expecting to look through a telescope and see a nice big globe covered with dark markings like you see in pictures, you’ll be disappointed. It’s now well behind the Earth in its orbit, having been very close last October. All a telescope will show is a tiny disc, and any details will be hard to make out. But hey, it’s Mars, and if you’ve never seen it before get your fill of it because in a few months it will be behind the Sun anyway. If you do get to see it, you might notice that its disc is not a complete circle but it shows a phase, like the gibbous Moon. This is because it is some way behind the Earth in its orbit, so the Sun shines slightly to one side of it from our point of view. But we never get to see it at half phase.
All the other bright planets are skulking around too close to the Sun to be seen from the UK this month, so you will have to make the most of Mars and the Moon.
What about the Moon, then?
At the very start of the month the Moon is pretty well full, as full Moon was on 27 February. Last quarter is on the 6th, and new Moon is on the 13th. First quarter follows on the 21st, then the next full Moon is on the 28th. If it’s clear on the 15th take a look low in the south-west about half an hour after sunset and you might spot the very thin crescent Moon.
Sorry, no eclipses this month. But we have a whole section of the website devoted to the Moon and its features. So make up for the lack of planets by getting to know the Moon.
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