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March night sky

March 2009 Night Sky

—Charlie Christmann

When Satellites Collide

The space above Earth where satellites orbit is an extremely large area, but with more than nine hundred satellites in orbit, a collision was bound to happen someday.

It did happen on February 10 at 9:55 a.m. MST, over 490 miles above Siberia. The satellites involved were Iridium 33 (part of the Iridium satellite telephone network), and Kosmos 2251, a presumed non-functional communications satellite. The relative speed of impact was about twenty-two thousand miles per hour. Both satellites were destroyed.

After the collision, a cloud of debris started forming along each satellite’s orbit. Initially, the U.S. space tracking network found more than five hundred pieces of space junk resulting from the accident. The orbital junk has spread above and below, as well as along, the original orbits. Most of the debris will orbit for hundreds of years before reentering the atmosphere. Over time, the orbits will slowly decay, getting closer to the atmosphere. Right now the ISS is probably safe at 220 miles up, but the Hubble telescope, orbiting at 380 miles, is much closer to the junk cloud.

Nicholas L. Johnson, NASA’s chief scientist for orbital debris, said there are about nineteen thousand objects in low Earth and high orbit—including about nine hundred satellites, but much of it is just plain junk.

There have been reports of fireballs over Italy and Texas attributed to the debris. Scientists now say the fireballs were more likely meteors.

Comet Lulin

On Monday, February 24 at 8:43 p.m. MST, Comet Lulin was thirty-eight million miles from Earth, the closest it will ever get, according to Donald Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near Earth Object program. If you had your binoculars out, you may have seen a greenish blob with its tail leading the way. The greenish color, which may be hard for many to discern, comes from a type of carbon and cyanogen, a poisonous gas.

This comet originated eighteen trillion miles out in space in what is known as the Oort Cloud. This cloud is thought to be a reservoir of icy remnants left over from the formation of our solar system. This is also the first and only trip for Lulin to the vicinity of the Sun. We will never know why this comet left its comfy orbit all those trillions of miles away, but we do know it will have enough velocity to escape our solar system after it rounds the Sun. Look at comet Lulin now, as we will never see it again.  

The Bright Stars of March

If the wind is not blowing too hard in the evenings, this is a great time to go outside around 9:00 p.m. and look up. Saturn will be in the east-southeast about forty-five degrees above the horizon. Orion, one of the most noticeable constellations, can be found in the southwest. The brightest stars are Betelgeuze (the shoulder) and Rigel (the foot). The three belt stars point to Sirius, the Dog Star. Capella is high in the northwest. Arcturus is located low in the east-northeast with Spica low in the east-southeast.

The Planets and the Moon

Mercury rises about forty-five minutes ahead of the Sun in the east.

Venus is high in the west after sunset. Look on the 26th to find Venus five degrees to the right of the new Moon. Use binoculars to find the Moon above the horizon after sunset.

Mars too rises about forty-five minutes ahead of the Sun this month.

Jupiter can be found rising in the east an hour ahead of the Sun.

The waning Moon joins Jupiter on the 22nd. Look about thirty minutes before sunrise. Jupiter will be four degrees to the lower left of the Moon.

Look for Saturn low in the east an hour after sunset. It will be up almost all night. Saturn can be found seven degrees to the upper left of the full Moon on the 10th.

The Moon is full on the 10th at 8:38 p.m. MDT and new on the 26th at 10:06 a.m. MDT.  

On the 8th, don’t forget to spring forward with your clocks when daylight savings begins.

The Sun crosses the equator heading north to start Spring at 5:44 a.m. MDT on the 20th.


     

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