March is a month of many space-related births. Albert Einstein was born in March (on the 14th, in 1879) as was Wernher von Braun (on the 23rd, in 1912). Wernher von Braun, of course, is widely recognized as the father of modern rocketry and as a major figure in the US space race. Albert Einstein, with his theory of relativity, created the foundation for modern cosmology and astrophysics; among other things, Einstein is responsible for the concept of a “black hole.”
Spring is almost here; it officially begins with the Vernal Equinox on the 20th of March. The Vernal Equinox marks the moment when the increasing period of daylight finally equals, and then overtakes, the decreasing period of darkness. After the Vernal Equinox, our days are longer than our nights, and the world around us warms to life after the dormancy of winter.
Many calendars base their first day on the Vernal Equinox. It is also a time when many holidays are celebrated. For instance, the Persian (Iranian) New Year begins with the Vernal Equinox. Passover is celebrated on the first full Moon after the Vernal Equinox. And, on the Sunday that follows the first full Moon after the Vernal Equinox, we have Easter.
The planets up this March are Mars and Saturn. Mars will ride high in the sky in the early evening. Although no longer at opposition, the red planet will continue to be well illuminated by the Sun, from the perspective of Earth, and appear relatively large (although certainly not Moon-size as some rumors may suggest) even in modest telescopes. Later in the evening, one can examine Saturn, the ringed planet, which will be at opposition (closest to Earth and illuminated face-on by the Sun) on the 22nd of March. This year, Saturn’s rings will be minimally visible given the edge-on view. The thin, faint rings, however, will make it easier to see the planet’s usually hidden moons. Why not visit Custer and see both planets through our telescopes and imaging gear?
March is a great month for galaxy watching since, when looking up, we observe out of the plane of our own galaxy, which will thus not interfere with our view of faint and distant objects. Why not take a look at M81 and M82, both of which may be found off the cup of the Big Dipper? M81, “Bode’s Galaxy,” is a spiral galaxy not unlike our Milky Way. It is one of the brightest galaxies in the sky although it is 1.2 million light years away!
M82 is an active galaxy in which many stars are rapidly forming—a starburst galaxy—that is especially bright in the radio spectrum. Both galaxies can be seen with a modest telescope and are good targets for astrophotography.