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The Sky This Week, 2014 March 25 - April 1

In like a lamb, out like a lion?

 Jupiter with its moon Io, 2014 MAR 23, 01:41 UT

The Moon begins the week greeting early risers who have a view to the southeastern horizon, where her slender crescent may be found during morning twilight. The second New Moon of March occurs on the 30th at 2:45 pm Eastern Daylight Time. Look for Luna just three degrees above brilliant Venus before sunrise on the 27th. Try your hand at spotting the very young crescent Moon in the evening sky just after sunset on the 31st. She should be much easier to find at dusk on the following night.

This is the second week of the March observing campaign for the citizen-science "Globe At Night" observing program. Hopefully we’ll have a few more clear nights before the Moon returns to brighten the evening sky and wash out the view of the sky’s fainter stars. We’re still observing the constellation of Orion, which is now prominently placed in the southwestern sky at the end of evening twilight. This will be the last month to secure good observations of this recognizable star pattern; starting in April our attention will shift to the somewhat less prominent constellation of Leo, the Lion. Even from here at the Naval Observatory I try to grab quick observations to contribute on nights when I’m observing, and it takes just a few minutes’ extra time.

The old saying goes: "March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb." This year I think that this may be reversed as it is snowing outside my window as I write this, but it is a legend that’s borne out among the stars. As March opens the stars of the constellation Leo become prominent in the east as night falls, and by the end of the month they are on the meridian at midnight. By the month’s end the stars of Aries are settling into the twilight glow in the west. Look about 10 degrees to the right of the crescent Moon at the end of evening twilight on April 1st and you’ll see Hamal, the Ram’s brightest star, preparing to set. Hopefully as April dawns the weather will figure out which season it’s supposed to be. I enjoy the snow, but not after my daffodils have bloomed!

The evening hours just after twilight are still dominated by the bright glow of Jupiter. His perch high on the ecliptic plane ensures that he will command your attention for several more weeks. The giant planet has now moved well past opposition, and even though he’s lost a bit of his luster he’s still the brightest object in this part of the sky. I’ve spent many hours observing the giant planet this year, and almost every one of them has been worth the effort. No other place in the solar system shows such rapid changes as the cloud belts in his turbulent atmosphere and the constantly shifting configurations of his four large Galilean moons. His most famous feature, the Great Red Spot, has begun to become more prominent compared to the past several apparitions, adding an interesting splash of color to the earthier tones of his darker cloud belts and bright zones. You’ll have a great opportunity to spot this distant planetary storm system on the evening of the 29th, when the spot transits Jupiter’s face between 8:00 pm and 10:00 pm EDT.

Mars is now becoming quite prominent in the southeastern sky. By 10:30 he’s well up and clear of the horizon haze, and his ruddy complexion makes him quite easy to find. He’s located just to the north of the bright blue star Spica, and the contrast between the two objects is quite remarkable. I had my first good look at the red planet with the Observatory’s 12-inch telescope recently, and tantalizing bits of detail could be seen on his distant dusty surface. Mars will reach opposition in two weeks, kicking off a feverish time for Mars observers around the globe.

Saturn comes into view at around midnight, following Mars into the southeastern sky. Unless you’re a night owl the best time to look at the ringed planet is still before dawn, when you’ll find him near the meridian in the south. Saturn will be a late spring and summer treat for planet watchers, giving us something fascinating to look at once Mars begins to recede from Earth in earnest.

Venus continues to wallow in the pre-dawn twilight. Even though she is near her greatest elongation from the Sun, her orbital plane makes a shallow angle with the northern hemisphere horizon which keeps her close to the southeastern skyline. Get used to her in this position; she’ll be in more or less the same location for most of the rest of the year.

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