Monday 28th March to Sunday 3rd April 2022
Firstly, something for the early risers on the morning of Monday 28th.  If you look towards the south east horizon around 6.20am, which is about 40 minutes before sunrise, you will be able to see four of our Solar System neighbours - Venus, Mars and Saturn, together with an 18%-lit Crescent Moon.

The clocks moved an hour forward to British Summer Time the day before and all the times I quote on Stars Over Somerset are always in local time, so that's 6.20am BST.  As the Sun will be rising, please don't be tempted to use a telescope as if you accidentally caught a glimpse of the Sun through the eyepiece, it would cause instant and permanent blindness!


If an early morning isn't your thing, there are a couple of good evening opportunities to spot the International Space Station next week.  Tuesday 29th at 8.48pm, appearing from the north west and Thursday 31st at 8.49pm, appearing from the west.  In both cases, the ISS spends six minutes passing overhead before disappearing to the east.

Charles Messier was a French astronomer whose main interest was comet-hunting.  He kept getting confused by seeing faint fuzzy deep sky objects and so decided to make a list of them.  The original Messier catalogue, published in 1744, contained 45 objects and it eventually grew to a total of 103.  Other astronomers later added seven more to make a total of 110.
Astronomers love the month of March because it is possible to observe almost all the Messier objects over one full night. I have included a collage of all 110 objects, courtesy of Wikipedia, in case you wanted to have a go at your own Messier Marathon with your telescope.



Monday 21st to Sunday 27th March 2022
On the evening of Wednesday 23rd, just after sunset, you could have a go at looking west to try and see a phenomenon known as the Zodiacal Light.  It is a faint white glow caused by dust in the Solar System scattering the light from the Sun that will have just set below the horizon.  You will need a reasonably dark sky with no light pollution and obviously, clear weather.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Much of the research into Zodiacal Light was carried out by the guitarist Brian May and he completed a thesis on it in 2007, having abandoned the project thirty six years earlier to concentrate on his musical career with Queen!


There are a couple of excellent opportunities to spot the International Space Station on the evenings of Monday 21st at 7.45pm and Wednesday 23rd at 7.46pm.  On both days, the ISS appears in the south west and spends five to six minutes passing overhead before disappearing to the east.  On the Wednesday it will actually travel directly overhead, which is unusual.


Finally, a reminder that the clocks move forward an hour on Sunday 27th and this marks the start of British Summer Time.  Although everyone welcomes the lighter evenings, it's not so popular with astronomers who want the opposite!  It also marks the disappearance of the constellation Orion from the night sky, as it is a winter constellation, so if you want to observe things like the Great Orion Nebula M42, you'd better do it soon!  Next week would be a good chance, while there is no light pollution from the Moon!



Monday 14th to Sunday 20th March 2022
On Tuesday 15th, the asteroid or minor planet 39 Laetitia reaches opposition.  In practical terms, this means that the object will be the brightest it gets in the night sky.  If you look towards the south east from around 11pm, the constellation of Virgo will have risen above the horizon and 39 Laetitia is located towards the top of the constellation.

This minor planet has a magnitude of +10, so a telescope will definitely be needed.  The magnitude scale works backwards, or in other words, the fainter an object is, then the larger positive magnitude figure it has.  You can see to around a magnitude of +6 with the naked eye so long as you are in a dark sky location.  Anything with a magnitude figure larger than that requires binoculars or a telescope.


One object that definitely won't need a telescope is the Full Moon on the evening of Friday 18th!  In fact, trying to view such a bright object that way can be uncomfortable as a telescope will collect too much light from it.  A Full Moon is also the ultimate source of light pollution as it destroys your contrast of the night sky and makes finding fainter deep sky objects very hard - just in the same way as if you are using a location that suffers light pollution from town lights, you cannot see to magnitude +6.


Sunday 20th is the Spring Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, where in astronomical terms, the centre of the Sun's disc crosses the celestial equator - what that means is that we have an equal period of day and night or we're half way to the Summer Solstice in June when we enjoy the longest day.



Monday 7th to Sunday 13th March 2022

It's been a while since I reported opportunities to see the International Space Station.  There is a good chance on Tuesday 8th, but you will need to be an early riser.  The ISS appears in the south west at 5.21am and it will be visible for four minutes before it disappears to the south east.


If you delay your breakfast a little and keep looking towards the south east, Venus and Mars rise above the horizon a little before dawn.  They appear quite close together and within a few days they will be the closest they ever appear to be - only 4 degrees apart.  Of course they are not really close together - it's just because of the angle you are viewing them from!


Next week provides a chance to see two of the Clair-Obscur Lunar visual effects.  On Thursday 10th at 5.30pm, a lesser-known effect called "Nessie" can be seen within the crater Ptolemaeus.  The first quarter Moon will be towards the south east, quite high in the sky.  Ptolemaeus is located near the centre of the Moon's disc and "Nessie", so named because it is meant to look like the silhouetted head and neck of the famous Loch Ness Monster, will be on the north east part of the crater's floor.  A minimum 4 inch telescope with fairly high magnification is recommended for this one.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

A couple of days later, on Saturday 10th, it is the turn of the "Jewelled Handle" in the Jura mountain range that is located towards the north west nearside face of the Moon.  It will be visible during the evening.

Diagram courtesy of Sky at Night Magazine



Monday 28th February to Sunday 6th March 2022

Continuing our theme of open star clusters from last week, if you look due south around 10pm, there is an excellent opportunity to see M44 which is also known as the Beehive Cluster.  Between the constellations of Leo and Gemini is the constellation of Cancer.  M44 is located near the centre of Cancer.  It contains more stars than many other open clusters and is best viewed with binoculars or a small telescope.


Facing back towards Leo, it is also currently possible to see a minor planet known as 16 Psyche.  Named after the Greek goddess of the soul, it is located below the belly of Leo the Lion and you will definitely need your binoculars or telescope as it only has a magnitude of around +10.


16 Psyche is one of the larger asteroids orbiting between Mars and Jupiter.  The "16" prefix signifies that it was the sixteenth minor planet discovered in order.  If you manage to spot it, you are looking at an object that is only 220Km diameter , but over 200 million miles away from us!  At that distance, the faint light reflecting from its surface takes 18 minutes to reach us.


Distances are hard to comprehend when they become many millions of miles, so astronomers use Astronomical Units within the Solar System.  One Astronomical Unit (or AU) is the distance from the Earth to the Sun which is about 93 million miles.  16 Psyche is currently at 2.2 AU or in other words, roughly twice as far away as us from the Sun.  I bet that's easier to understand!