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March 2013: Moons

March 2013

In the show this time, we talk to Dr Jeronimo Bernard-Salas about circumstellar and interstellar fullerenes, Stuart rounds up the latest news and we hear what we can see in the March night sky from Ian Morison and John Field.

The News

This month in the news: a star's final flarewell, black hole records and a new notch in the Van Allen belts.

Interview with Dr Jeronimo Bernard-Salas

Dr Jeronimo Bernard-Salas talks to us about observations of circumstellar and interstellar fullerenes. These carbon molecules have been observed in a lot of different environments, from star-forming regions to very old and evolved stars. In this interview, Dr Bernard-Salas explains the different mechanisms for their formation and evolution in these environments.

The Night Sky

Northern Hemisphere

Ian Morison tells us what we can see in the northern hemisphere night sky during March 2013.

The constellations of Orion, Taurus, Gemini and Auriga are gradually moving out of view towards the west. Leo lies to the west of Gemini, with a fairly empty part of the sky in between containing Cancer. The open star cluster M44, the Beehive, is at Cancer's heart, and is lovely in binoculars. Procyon, the brightest star in Canis Minor, is below it. The Sickle of Leo forms the Lion's paws and includes the bright star Regulus. Beneath his belly are a number of galaxies which can be seen using binoculars or a small telescope. M105, M96 and M95 form a trio, with M66 and M65 further over. Between the stars Denebola - in the Lion's tail - and Arcturus in the constellation of Boötes, is Coma Berenices and the northern part of Virgo. This apparently sparse region of the heavens is known as the Realm of the Galaxies, and looks towards the giant Virgo Cluster of galaxies. Binoculars or a small telescope pick out a number of Messier objects there on a dark night. Ursa Major, the Great Bear, is above Leo and contains the asterism of the Plough, otherwise known as the Big Dipper. The middle star of the handle of the Plough is a double star, Alcor and Mizar, that can be separated with the naked eye. A small telescope shows that the brighter star, Mizar, is itself a double, and there is another, reddish, star in the same field of view.

The Planets


Southern Hemisphere

John Field from the Carter Observatory in New Zealand speaks about the southern hemisphere night sky during March 2013.

Early in the month, Comets Lemmon and PANSTARRS should be visible in the south-west after sunset as the nights lengthen. The summer constellations of Taurus, Orion and Gemini can be found in the north-east in the evening, but move towards the western horizon during the month. The Pleiades Cluster is in the north-west a little later in the evening. To Māori, it is Matariki - the Little Eyes - and is important in the annual calendar. Binoculars or a telescope reveal many stars. The V-shaped head of Taurus the Bull follows the Pleiades, with the planet Jupiter between them. Jupiter is growing fainter as it moves away from the Earth. The brightest star in Taurus is the orange-coloured Aldebaran - the Follower in Arabic - which marks one of the Bull's eyes. The Hyades Cluster forms the fainter part of the Bull's head, and contains the half-sisters of the Pleiades according to Greek mythology. The cluster hosts a number of multiple stars among more than 100 that are brighter than magnitude +9. The zodiacal constellation of Cancer the Crab appears in the north as four stars with a haze at the centre. This haze covers an area some three times greater than that of the full Moon, and binoculars show it to be the Beehive Cluster. Leo the Lion rises at sunset and follows the Crab across the sky. First associated with Persian culture, to the Ancient Greeks this became the lion slain by Hercules for the first of his twelve tasks. Regulus, the brightest star in Leo at magnitude +1.4, is a blue-white star with a red companion of magnitude +7.6 that can be seen through binoculars or a small telescope. The planet Saturn rises in the east before midnight, in the constellation of Libra.

The Milky Way runs from north to south in the evening, and is brightest near the southern horizon. It is Te Ikaroa - the Long Fish - to Māori in Aotearoa (New Zealand). This is the path along which Tama-rereti sailed across the sky as he placed the stars into the heavens. Its mottled appearance comes from clouds of interstellar material that block the light of the more distant stars. The constellation of Crux, or the Southern Cross, sits in the southern part of the Milky Way along with its pointer stars. The different parts of the great ship Argo lie between Crux and Canis Major. The largest constellation until 1752, it is now divided into Carina (keel), Vela (sails) and Puppis (poop deck). Carina is full of naked-eye objects, including Canopus, the second-brightest night-time star at magnitude -0.72. According to Greek legend, Argo carried Jason and his crew in their quest to find the Golden Fleece, and it sails along the Milky Way with its keel pointing towards the south celestial pole about which the sky appears to rotate. The Clouds of Magellan are near to the star Achernar in the south, and can easily be spotted with the unaided eye on a dark, moonless night. The Clouds are, in fact, two small galaxies approximately 200,000 light-years away.

The autumnal equinox arrives on the 20th, when the day and night will be of almost equal length and the Sun will rise due east and set due west. The planet Mercury appears in the morning twilight this month, making its best appearance of the year and rising due east at dawn by the middle of the month. An orange-looking star to the naked eye, it resembles a tiny crescent Moon when viewed through a small telescope. Venus and Mars, meanwhile, are almost behind the Sun from our perspective and are therefore hidden.

Odds and Ends

On the 25th February 2013, a small satellite, Strand-1 (Surrey Training, Research and Nanosatellite Demonstrator), was launched into space. This satellite contains a smartphone which will eventually control parts of the satellite as well as running apps such as "Scream in Space". This satellite also tests two new propulsion systems: Pulsed Plasma Thrusters and the WARP DRiVE (Water-Alcohol Resistojet Propulsion Deorbit Re-entry Velocity Experiment).

Precision planet-hunting: the smallest exoplanet yet has been discovered with the Kepler space telescope. The planet was one of three discovered orbiting the star Kepler 37, and is estimated to be smaller than Mercury but slightly larger than the Moon. The planet, Kepler 37b, orbits its parent star about at about a third of the Mercury-Sun distance.

A vote has been held to find names for the fourth and fifth moons of Pluto. The winning names were Vulcan and Cerberus. These will be out forward to the International Astronomy Union who will ultimately decide the new names.

Show Credits

News:Stuart Harper
Interview:Dr Jeronimo Bernard-Salas and Liz Guzman
Night sky:Ian Morison and John Field
Presenters:Indy Leclercq, Christina Smith and Chris Wallis
Editors:Christina Smith, Claire Bretherton, Liz Guzman and Mark Purver.
Segment Voice:Mike Peel
Website:Christina Smith and Stuart Lowe
Producer:Christina Smith
Cover art:A true-colour image of the major part of NGC 1365, combined from three exposures with the FORS1 multi-mode instrument at VLT UT1, in the B (blue), V (green) and R (red) optical bands. CREDIT: ESO

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