March 2017 night sky guide, transcript and sky chart

To help you learn about the southern night sky, Sydney Observatory provides an audio guide/podcast, transcript of that audio, and a sky map or chart each month. This month’s guide is presented by Geoffrey Wyatt, Sydney Observatory’s Education Program Producer.
If you’re not sure how to find your way around the night sky, Geoff presents some easy tips for how you can find angles above the horizon just using your fist, fingers and arm – and it doesn’t matter how old or big you are as the sizes of your fist, fingers and arms are proportional with the rest of you – so it works for everyone!
Geoff takes us on a tour of the stars and constellations prominent in the March sky, including the bright star Aldebaran in the constellation of Taurus, and the bright star Betelgeuse in the constellation of Orion.
Geoff’s fascinating talk is enriched with historical and mythological astronomical references – ranging across cultures including Indigenous Australian, Arabic and ancient Greek.

Hear the Audio
You can upload the audio from iTunes to your iPod or mp3 player, or listen to it on your computer.

See The Sky Chart
We provide a March 2017 night sky chart (PDF) which shows the stars, constellations and planets visible in the night sky from anywhere in Australia. To view PDF star charts you will need to download and install Adobe Acrobat Reader if it’s not on your computer already.

Read the Transcript
Hello there, this is Geoffrey Wyatt, one of the team here at Sydney Observatory which is part of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. I’m going to talk to you about what’s visible in the sky for the month of March. Did you know that March, or Martius used to be the first month of the year according to the old Roman calendar as formulated by Romulus around 753BCE. The year had 10 months and ended with December which make sense doesn’t it? January and February were added later.

After Julius Caesar’s calendar reform in 45BCE, it slipped down a couple of notches to month number three then made a brief comeback in many places as the start of the year, but after acceptance of the Gregorian reform went back to number three.

March, named in honour of the Roman god of war the planet Mars. We’re going to start our tour of the night sky by looking west shortly after sunset. When I say ‘shortly after sunset’, you do need some time for it to get dark. You might be wait 20-30 minutes or up to an hour, but look to where the Sun went down and that will be west.

What you need are some supplies to make this tour easier to follow. First and foremost you’ll need a map of the night sky which you can get from our website, or you can purchase the book, ‘The Australasian sky guide’ by Dr Nick Lomb. You’ll need a few other things to keep yourself happy and comfortable as well, perhaps a blanket to sit on, a pillow, a torch and something to drink, perhaps a nice coffee, tea or even a glass of Milo or perhaps a glass of wine if you are old enough. Most of all you will need, imagination. The more imagination you have when it comes to joining the dots and looking for these mythical creatures, the easier it will be to find your way around.

The Sun has gone down, we’ve waited a little while, it’s dark and let’s begin.

But before we do that we need something else and that is a regular way of finding our position. We can do it a couple of different ways. Astronomers use terms called right ascension and declination which are simply celestial equivalents of longitude and latitude but they’re a bit tricky so we’re going to use a simpler version: azimuth and altitude. Azimuth is simply a degree measured in an easterly direction from north and altitude is a degree measured from the horizon. So if you’re looking to the western horizon you’re looking at an azimuth of 270 degrees east of north and if you’re looking on the horizon, the altitude is 0 degrees.

East has an azimuth of 90, south an azimuth of 180, west as we’ve just discussed 270 degrees and north is either zero or 360 degrees. We don’t mind which one you use.

A good thing to remember is, for altitude, you’ve actually got a built in rule. If you hold your hand at arm’s length, then stretch out a pinkie, regardless of your age or size, it measures one degree which is twice the size of the full Moon.

If you make a clenched fist at arm’s length, that’s roughly ten degrees. And if you spread your hand to make a hand span from pinkie-tip to the tip of your thumb, that’s roughly 20 degrees.

We should be looking at an azimuth of 270 degrees to start and we’re looking into the setting constellation of Taurus the bull which is perhaps the oldest of all constellations. It will be a little hard to see because it’s getting close to the horizon but you’re looking for a V-shaped group of stars that represents the head of Taurus the bull. We think it may date back around 6000 years. And for around 2000 years it was home to a very important point or indeed the starting position in the sky, known as the vernal equinox. But not any more. Things change, ever so slightly, day-by-day for some objects and year-by-year for others.

The vernal equinox? What does that mean? In Latin: ‘ver’ means ‘spring’ and ‘equinox’ comes from ‘equinoctium’ meaning ‘equal night’. So…on the vernal equinox, when the Sun is rising due east and setting due west, you have roughly equal night and equal day. It’s never exactly the same and I wonder if you can think why? If I tell you we that we see the Sun as a disk not a point source does that help?

In the morning, as soon as you see the top limb of the Sun peek above the horizon, it’s daytime until the very last point at which it sets, so there’s always going to be a little more daylight than night on the equinoxes.

So what does the Vernal equinox actually signify and why is it so important? From an observational point of view the Sun travelling along its path called the ecliptic, simply crosses the celestial equator from the southern hemisphere back into the northern. For the northern hemisphere the days are now be longer than the night and this became the marker for the start of spring and therefore for new life.

Astronomers worked out from many years of observation that the Vernal equinox was occurring in the part of the sky called Taurus. They decided to mark the beginning of spring, the start of new life, as the start of the year and that’s why until relatively recently for some countries the year used to begin on the 1st of March. But no longer.

To give you an idea just how important this part of the sky was, ancient Persian astronomers used to assign letters to the constellations. Guess which letter the constellation of Taurus the bull used to get? Hmmmmm? Figured it out yet? Of course – the letter A. The next constellation along, Gemini, got a B, and so on. Clearly this was a very important part of the sky.

Just for moment consider this. Have you ever played a game of ‘Whispers’ where you pass a story from one person to another then another and so on? People often make mistakes or deliberate changes and ultimately the story is very different to how it began. Now consider passing a story from one generation to the next and you can image what might happen. Well that’s exactly what’s happened to stories about the sky.

These days we have many versions floating around about Taurus and indeed all of the constellations that I’ll mention today. You have to remember that there is no absolute unless you’re talking about the modern well defined, documented recent constellations. For something as old as Taurus there are many different versions and the one I will share revolves around the king of the Greek gods, Zeus.

Zeus could change his form into whatever he wanted. He was, after all, king of the gods and one particular time he changed his form into that of a white bull. Why? He was rather fond of the King Agenor’s daughter, Europa, who used to mind a herd of cattle. As a beautiful bull Zeus mingled a herd and somehow convinced Europa to climb upon his back. At which point he carried her off over the waves to the island of Crete. This is such a famous story that the land mass we now refer to as Europe took her name – Europa / Europe.

When you’re looking at Taurus and this V-shaped group of stars that I’ve mentioned, look for one slightly reddish looking star called Aldebaran which is the first of four Royal or Guardian Stars.

This is a very old idea dating back to Mesopotamia thousands of years ago. The astronomers of the time noted four stars were close to the seasonal markers in the sky, the equinoxes and solstices’. Aldebaran the 14th brightest star in the night sky was the closest bright star near the point of the Vernal equinox. Its old Arabic name means ‘the follower’ probably because it’s following the nearby group of stars called the Pleiades.

Aldebaran is about 65 light years away and a light year is the distance that light travels in the vacuum of space in one year. Light travels enormously quickly at around 300,000 kilometres every second. So multiply that by the number of seconds in a year and you end up with a lot of kilometres, around 10 trillion in fact!

It might seem strange but it’s not a measure of time it’s a measure of distance, the distance that light can travel in one year. With Aldebaran 65 light years away, you’re seeing it now as it was 65 years ago. In fact, you’re looking back in time. I think that is rather a cool idea.

Aldebaran is about 650 million years old, so it’s not very old in terms of stars and it’s about 1.7 times the size of the Sun. I’ve mentioned now that it’s at the head of a V-shaped group of stars. Unfortunately it has nothing to actually do with that V-shaped group of stars; it’s just between us and the group of young stars called the Hyades. They are the nearest open cluster to us at just about 150 light years away. These stars are, well, babies still in the stellar nursery.

If we leave Aldebaran, that lovely reddish-orange star. Oh by the way when I say ‘red’ I don’t mean traffic-light red; it’s not that at all. It’s more of a golden orange colour. There are very very few stars and none that I’m aware of, that are, if you like, ruby red to the naked eye. There is one very close to the Southern Cross but you’ll have to wait until I do the June podcast to hear about Ruby Crucis.

What we’re going to do is leave Aldebaran and head roughly 20 degrees up…. ooh – 20 degrees? Oh, that’s right, that’s one hand span at arm’s length. So, head 20 degrees up and look for another slightly reddish orange star. This is the 9th brightest star in the night sky and it’s called Alpha Orionis. But not many people know it by that name because it has such a spectacular common name, and that is: Betelgeuse. Yes, that’s right, there is a star called Betelgeuse. Some people pronounce it as ‘Beetlegerze’ or ‘Beetlegeese’ but they’re all mispronunciations of the old Arabic name: Yad al-Jauza [pronounced Ib-tel-yarze], meaning ‘the hand of the big man’, or as we now call it, Orion’s brightest star, Betelgeuse.

This particular star is quite big. It’s about 1000 times the diameter of the Sun. It’s roughly 660 light years away making about ten times further away than the star we’ve just mentioned which is Aldebaran. It’s about 10 to 20 times the mass of the Sun which makes it a pretty big star. A big star like this which is only 10 million years old is already dying and quite shortly – we don’t know when – it should die a rather spectacular death – as a supernova. In fact, a Type II supernova.

Please don’t worry – it can’t do anything to us. It’s 660 light years away, that’s an enormous distance. Nonetheless, we’re very excited by this and I really hope it does explode during – well, can I be selfish and say? – my lifetime. Because since the invention of the telescope we’ve not actually had a star explode in our galaxy that we can easily see. We see them explode in other galaxies all the time, they go off regularly. But we haven’t seen one explode in our galaxy since Tycho’s Star in 1572 before the invention of the telescope. So when this star does blow up…. Soon? Who knows? It could be tomorrow. It could be in a thousand years. It could be in a million years. We just don’t know. Nothing to worry about. But, temporarily, this star will outshine all the other stars in the galaxy combined. That’s a sight worthy of seeing. But of course, let me state again nothing to worry about.

Betelgeuse is the brightest star in the constellation of Orion. A constellation was a picture in the sky but now they are areas with carefully drawn borders and I like to think of them like suburbs. Just as we use suburbs to give us a general idea of location so do constellations but for the sky.

If you look at your map and with a little imagination, or perhaps a lot, you may be able to make up a stick figure of a hunter. You can see the shoulders. He’s got a belt across his waist, he’s got stars for the knees and he’s holding a shield out the front and a club above his head however you need imagination. If you expect to see one of these fabulously detailed drawings that we see on old star maps, forget it. It’s not going to happen for any of the constellations. At best it’s going to be a very simple stick figure and I think for some it’s nearly impossible. Perhaps you can even join the dots and make up your own pictures. Orion, well, again, there are lots of stories about Orion and they may have had a common origin, we just don’t know any more.

One of the Greek stories I like is that Orion was a mighty hunter who became a good friend of the Goddess of the Hunt Artemis. Her brother, Apollo was not very keen on this relationship and tricked Artemis into shooting at a speck in the ocean as a test of her skill. As it turned out it was of course Orion swimming to safety to escape the giant scorpion that Apollo created to kill him. When she discovered what she had done, she was mortified and placed his body into the sky as the stars that we see now.

Orion is one of the first objects that people with a small telescope or a pair of binoculars should look at. What I want you to do is to locate the object called M42. It is a very famous object to look at. ‘M’ simply tells us that it was part of a catalogue of objects devised by a Frenchman in 1771. His name was Charles Messier. He made up a list of 40-odd objects not to look at if you’re expecting to find a comet. So a list of fuzzy objects that you don’t waste your time looking at these; they’re never going to develop a tail and look as spectacular as Comet Halley. The list has now been expanded to a total of 110 objects but the 42nd one I think is the first ones that people look at with binoculars or a telescope.

To find it, it’s relatively easy. Look for the orange-reddish star of Betelgeuse and then for us in the Southern Hemisphere go up a little bit. You’ll see three stars in a row that form a lovely straight line, a nice equidistant straight line.

To Australians, South Africans and our cousins across the ditch in New Zealand, we typically call this group of stars, starting with those three in a straight line, the Saucepan. Yeah – not quite as romantic as a mighty hunter, but there you have it: The Saucepan. The three stars that I’ve just mentioned are the base of the saucepan. What I want you to go up one side and you’ll see another three stars off at roughly 45 degrees that make up the handle of the saucepan. Concentrate on the middle star of that group of three. It’s not a single point of light. But you will need binoculars or a small telescope.

And if you do that, what you’re looking at, as I’ve mentioned, the 42nd object in Messier’s catalogue, is called the Great Nebula in Orion. This is a cloud of gas and dust that’s about 1300 light years away. It’s 24 light years from side-to-side. Twenty-four light years across – that’s enormously big. And roughly 2000 times the mass of the Sun.

You’re not looking the nursery of stars that I mentioned earlier but rather the maternity ward. When we look into this middle star-like object, we see a little part of this cloud glowing as a result of baby stars just switching on. You can actually see some of them with a small telescope and we call them the Trapezium. They’re lighting up and in fact stripping away the rest of the nearby cloud. So when you see these brand new stars just switching on, it’s a beautiful object to look at – but there is a trick. And the trick is that you want a moonless night and, preferably, a night away from the bright lights which is unfortunately most of the city.

From the constellation of Orion, what I want you to do now is go a little bit higher and look for the brightest star in the night sky. There’s no missing it. It’s pretty high. It’s bright. It’s called Sirius, the Dog Star. It’s about 8.6 light years away so it’s relatively close. It’s twice the mass of the Sun and, again actually quite young at roughly 300 million years old. It has a companion snuggled up against it – but you do need a very big telescope for that. So don’t worry about trying to it at the moment.

This is, as I’ve mentioned, the brightest star in the night sky. So you’ll find stories about it all over the world. Locally, unfortunately we don’t have any stories at the moment from the Sydney region. However in 1857, William Edward Stanbridge, a wealthy English pastoralist and philanthropist, recorded stories from the Boorong, part of the Wergaia language group that inhabited the region of Lake Tyrell in north-western Victoria. The Boorong looked at this star which we call Sirius and they called it Warepil, a male eagle and he was in fact an Elder of the Nurrumbunguttias. The Nurrumbunguttias were the old spirits that once inhabited the land but went to the heavens before the first people arrived.

Do you that know the Indigenous peoples of Australia have been looking at stars and telling stories and passing them from one generation to the next longer than any other culture on the planet? How privileged are we therefore to be now be taught and share this and other Indigenous stories? It makes me very proud to be Australian.

The stars are often used for calendrical purpose also. I think one of the best uses comes to us from the ancient Egyptians perhaps as long as 5000 years ago. They used to watch Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the night sky and take careful note of it getting closer and closer to the Sun as the Sun would set, until finally Sirius was lost in the glare of the Sun for about 70 days. They’d then get up early and start looking for it rising just ahead of the Sun in the east. The first day that they could see it coming up ahead of the Sun is an event called heliacal rise.

The Egyptians did this year after year after year and they worked out that on average it would return to the same position every 365 and a quarter days. They didn’t actually have the concept of decimal place, so it wasn’t as though they said 365.25 but they worked out 365 and a quarter days averaged to 365 days for three years and then 366 for the fourth.

Now apparently they didn’t actually make use of this for one of their main calendars because they had several and it wasn’t until it was imposed upon them by Augustus Caesar that they started using it.

Take a moment to look at the calendar on your wall. It rules everything we do: birthdays, anniversaries, public holidays: hey let’s face it, who doesn’t like those? Pay days and other special events. It took nearly 2000 years to improve on the observations of the Egyptians to get the length of the year correct by an additional – wait for it – 0.002% which is roughly 11 minutes. I take my hat off to the ancient Egyptians and their observations of the Dog Star, Sirius.

Ooh, Sirius, let me think…. Ahh, but of course, I’ve heard that name elsewhere and hopefully so have you. It was one of the ships that came to Australia as part of the First Fleet. I do believe in more recent times it featured as a character in a series of novels about a young wizard boy. I’ll leave that to perhaps your children or grandchildren to tell you who that was.

Once we’ve finished with Sirius – oh, and by the way, you should be able to make out a simple stick figure of a dog in this region, but you will need Dr Nick’s book or a map.

What I want you to do is to head to an azimuth of zero degrees, so, remember, as we said before, that’s means we’re now looking due north at about 25 degrees altitude. So that’s one hand span and roughly half a clenched fist above the northern horizon and what you’re going to look for is a zodiac constellation. ‘Zodiac’ – have I mentioned that before? Zodiac is simply the name that we give to the path or circle of animals: the constellations through which the Sun, the Moon and the planets move. All of the zodiac constellations bar one are animals. Think about it: which of the zodiacs is not a living animal? We can’t see it at this time of year but again if you wait until the June podcast, I’ll tell you the answer to that one.

We’re looking due north there are two relatively bright stars in this particular constellation and they are Castor and Pollux. They are brothers who went with Jason in search of the Golden Fleece. Several constellations relate to this indicating its importance in years gone by.

We’re going to skip Gemini because there’s, well, not a lot to it. With a bit of imagination, and I know I stress that, you might just be able to see two stick figures of people that look like they’re holding hands and that’s Gemini.

The next constellation along, however, oh my goodness, it is the hardest of all zodiacs to see, so we’re going to slip right past it and I use that word deliberately and I’ll get back to that in just a moment.

Several thousand years ago but not now because of the 26,000 year wobble known as the Precession of the Equinoxes, the Northern hemisphere’s summer solstice used to be in this part of the sky.

The word ‘solstice’ comes from two Latin words. ‘Sol’, meaning ‘the Sun’ and ‘sistere’ – ‘ to stand still’. The Sun does not actually stand still, it just stops moving north just like a ball at the top of its flight stops moving up, ever so briefly, before falling back to Earth. So, the Sun stops its seasonal northward movement as we see it because of our yearly orbit, and starts to head back toward the south.

Without any north south movement in declination the Sun appears to slip sideways. Which animal that is famous for walking sideways? Aha! I hear you say: the crab.

That’s right, we’re looking into the zodiac constellation of Cancer, the Crab. The sad thing about Cancer is there’s just nothing bright there to look at. That’s why the second of our seasonal markers, the Royal or Guardian Stars is just a little bit to your right in the next constellation not in poor old empty Cancer.

So, continue to your right to an azimuth of about 60 degrees, so roughly in the north-east, and about 30 degrees above the horizon in altitude. So, one hand span and one clenched fist above the horizon. And you’re looking for a single bright star. This bright star is roughly 79 light years away, it’s four times the mass of the Sun and about three times the diameter of the Sun. So it’s a pretty big star. It’s only the 22nd brightest star in the night sky but it’s the closest bright star to that summer solstice as seen from the Northern Hemisphere several thousand years ago. So, it’s the second of our Royal Stars. The star you are looking at is Regulus in the constellation of Leo the Lion.

Here’s a challenge for you. Scan this part of the sky look for an upside down question mark. If you can see that, you’re well on your way to seeing the head and the fiery mane of Leo the Lion.

Again, in the Southern Hemisphere for us, it’s upside down so it’s a little tricky to see but with some imagination and patience, you should be able to see a majestic cat in the sky, sitting there with its legs out in front and a tail out the back. Poor old Leo he did not have a nice time however because he was killed by Hercules in the first his twelve labours.

Near the stars Theta and Iota Leonis – look there’s no nice way of saying this – we’re actually talking about the stars near his private bits, if you look at the map and have a good pair of binoculars away from bright lights, scan this area and you may just see two faint fuzzy smudges that won’t become comets. That’s right – they’re more Messier objects. We’re looking at Messier 65 and Messier 66. They’re about 35 million light years away but you will need a good pair of binoculars or a small telescope. More importantly, I think you’ll need to put them onto a tripod or wedge them against a tree of something to keep them nice and still.

From this part of the sky which is Leo, I want you to continue around to an azimuth of about 90 degrees. So we’re looking towards the East, and I want you to find the constellation of Shoppingus Trollaius. Say, what? Yes, of course, there’s no such constellation. I made it up, guilty as charged. What you’re looking at to me looks like a shopping trolley. However it is supposed to be Corvus the Crow that used to have the ability to talk to people. It was however a bit lazy and after one particular epic fail, the god Apollo banished Corvus along with Crater the Cup and Hydra the Snake into the sky. So you’ll see these constellations in the east at the moment. Just slightly higher than Corvus you should be able to see the bright star Alphard, which is the brightest star in the constellation of Hydra the Snake. Alphard is an Arabic name which means ‘solitary one’ because there’s nothing else nearby that’s bright to look at. So look for a solitary bright star and you’ve probably found Alphard in the constellation of Hydra.

Moving on from this part of the sky, I want you to go around to an azimuth of about 150 degrees and an altitude of 25 degrees. Look, it’s a bit low, so it’s not a good time to see it but what you’re looking at is the third brightest star in the night sky, called Alpha Centauri.

Climb a little bit higher up from Alpha Centauri to about 30 degrees and you might be able to see the smallest of all 88 constellations. It is…the Southern Cross.

That’s not its official name by the way. Its official name is simply Crux, which is Latin for ‘cross’. To our friends over in New Zealand, it is known as Te Punga which means ‘the anchor’.

The Southern Cross is so famous it’s actually on five different national flags. It’s on many other province or island flags but five national flags, Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Brazil but there’s a bit of a trick to finding it on the Brazilian flag because there are so many other stars. They’re also back-to-front because they’re seen from outside the celestial sphere in the realm of god, from the outside, looking in.

Go up a little bit higher from the Southern Cross, you’ll actually see a group of stars at about 60 degrees above the horizon that confuses people, especially over summer and even now as we’re moving into March this particular group of stars that looks like a cross and is frequently called ‘the false cross’. It’s not actually a constellation; it’s actually an asterism which simply means a group of stars that make up a picture that’s not officially a constellation. This picture is made up of stars from the constellations Carina the Keel and Vela the Sails which used to be part of a much larger constellation – one of the original 48 as described by Claudius Ptolemaius – and that is Argo Navis; but not any longer. That constellation was deemed to be too big and was broken up into smaller constellations.

From the ‘false cross’, you should be able to see, quite close by, another very bright star. This star is not quite as bright as Sirius that we looked at earlier as it is the second brightest star in the night sky, and it’s called Canopus. Again, to the Aboriginal people of the Lake Tyrell area, the Boorong of the Wergaia language group, this star is called Waa. It’s written as W-a-a – and it’s to suggest the noise made by a crow. Waa, is the brother of Warepil and he too is an Elder of the Nurrumbunguttias.

Quite close by and also in the constellation of Carina, you’ll be able to find the fairly faint star called Eta Carina, which is a rather remarkable region of the sky that you should look at if you’ve got a pair of binoculars or a small telescope. Oh, by the way, to the Boorong name for Eta Carina: Collowgullouric Waa which means the wife of Waa.

This whole area is rather spectacular and I can’t urge you strongly enough to get out a pair of binoculars or a small telescope and simply scan the region. At the heart of the Eta Carina nebula, is a cataclysmic variable star. In other words, it’s a star that’s changing its brightness in the very final stages of its death. It’s already shed a great deal of material which is now partially obscuring the star. The last time it did anything significant was in 1843 when it went from being a fairly inconspicuous background star to the second brightest star in the night sky. And then it faded over about a ten-year period. During this time it came to the notice of the Boorong clan, and that’s why they named this star Collowgullouric Waa, as we’ve already mentioned, the wife of Waa.

Our last stop on our tour for the moment is toward the west to an azimuth of about 220 degrees and an altitude of just 20. The star you are hunting is Achernar in the constellation of Eridanus the River. It’s about 140 light years away, seven times the mass of the Sun, but 3000 times brighter. It may be a little hard to see because it is relatively low – so why am I bothering with it? I think it’ cool. This star spins so fast it is the least spherical star in the Milky Way. Its equatorial diameter, its bulge around the middle, is 56% greater than its diameter around the top and the bottom or, if you like, its polar diameter. We’re almost back to our starting position of an azimuth of 270 but by this stage Taurus will have completely set.

Highlights for March 2017

First quarter Moon is on Sunday the 5th at 10:32pm
The Moon will be full on Monday the13th at 1:54am
Last quarter is Tuesday 21st at 2:58am, and
The New Moon is on Tuesday the 28th at 1:57pm

The autumn equinox is Monday 20th at 9:29pm.

One of the nicest vistas will be on March the 1st looking west shortly after sunset. The constellation of Pisces will host Venus which is very bright but it sets at 8:28pm less than an hour after the Sun, Mars which is not bright and the young crescent Moon (~9%). By the 2nd the Moon will have moved from below and to the left of Mars to above and the right.

Only Mars is visible all month in the evening sky but don’t get too excited as it is rather dim being on the opposite side of the Sun to us at around 310million km away.

It stars the month very low in Pisces before moving into Aries by the end of the first week. It’s dim and small even through a big telescope but don’t worry because next year in July, Mars will be at its closest since 2003 and for the next 15 years or so. Make sure you plan a visit to Sydney Observatory if you can and enjoy the view of our red neighbour in July 2018.

As mentioned, Venus will disappear from the western twilight sky by the end of the second week.

Jove or Jupiter, king of the Roman gods will starts the month rising in the east about an hour after sunset and by the end of the month by an hour 20 minutes. It will be in Virgo close to the its’ brightest star Spica. The waxing gibbous Moon will be to the left, or north, of Jupiter and Spica on the 14th all rising around 8:30pm.

For those up early, Venus will become the ‘Morning star’ in the last week though it will rise only up to about 30min ahead of the Sun and therefore be hard to see.

The jewel of the night sky, Saturn will be in Sagittarius all month rising at 1am on the 1st and by 11pm by the end of the month so it’s a few months away from being visible in our night tours.

Don’t forget that you can download this podcast via our website or free via iTunes. You can also purchase the book, ‘Australasian sky guide‘ by Dr Nick Lomb which has the full year’s full details in it.

You can get more information by visiting Sydney Observatory’s website. You can follow us on Facebook and on Twitter.

My name is Geoffrey Wyatt part of the team at Sydney Observatory which is part of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. I hope you’ve enjoyed this podcast for March 2017.

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2 responses to “March 2017 night sky guide, transcript and sky chart

  • Hi Geoffrey,
    What an awesome article! Especially, I liked your references to ancient Roman calendars. In this context, I find it interesting that the ancient Sanskrit ( Indian) names of the constellations are identical to Greek names. Pisces is Meena (fish), Leo is Simha ( lion) etc. This must be more than a coincidence, since I can not see how two groups of astronomers so far apart could have seen the same patterns in the night sky with the naked eye. This probably occurred around 500 B.C. when Greek and Indian astronomers met and exchanged notes following a war and peace treaty between Seleucus and Chandragupta Maurya. Can you shed more light on this?
    Manju Nath
    Texas, USA

    • Hello Manju,
      Thank you for the kind words and sorry for the delay in getting back to you as I have been on leave. It’s nice to know we are reaching people across the globe from our most beautiful Sydney Observatory. I would agree that the probability of coincidence naming the constellations exactly the same beggar’s belief though there may have been some parallel development.

      Sadly however I cannot explain how this cross cultural pollination came about other than as you suggest: war, peace and trade as I am not that familiar with ancient history. What we can do is narrow the possibilities of the origins by looking at what was named in the sky and when.

      Around 270BCE the Greek poet Aratus (~310-240BCE) mentioned some old constellations but none reached the deep south that we can see here in Australia. The extent of what was not included suggests they originated at latitudes similar to those of the Babylonians and the Sumerians.

      Claudius Ptolemy (~100-170CE) in his Almagest made use of data from the lost Hipparchus catalogue of 129 BCE that went further south than he could see from Alexandria though the limit was not centered on the south celestial pole as we see it today. If precession of the equinoxes is taken into consideration and the limits of the stars used, the region known as Mesopotamia appears to be the prime candidate as the progenitor more than 2000 years prior to Ptolemy.

      So it would seem therefore that we have a good idea on the origins and as we see with so much of the past it simply filtered out to all and in many ways persists today thousands of years later.

      Kind regards
      Geoff

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