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Night Sky

March Night Sky

March 2010 Night Sky

—Charlie Christmann, Signpost

There be Dragons

In the northern March sky around 9:00 p.m. you can find the monster dragon Draco, created by fifteen or so stars. The head of the Dragon is near the northern horizon, and the tail curls around Ursa Minor. Except for the stars that form Draco's eyes, the stars of this constellation are not very bright. Consequently, it is quite an achievement to follow the meandering curve of the grotesque body of the Dragon as it winds its way between the Great Bear and the Little Bear.

There are many multiple stars in the Dragon constellation. An outstanding binary star is nu Draconis. The two white stars have magnitudes of 4.88 and 4.87. With a good pair of binoculars, you should be able to see both of them. Binoculars may be sufficient to split psi Draconis into a pair of stars. A really impressive triple system is 39 Draconis. Field glasses show a wide star duo; in larger scopes a third star close to the brighter one can be seen. Another attractive triple is 16-17 Draconis. With binoculars two blue-white stars of fifth magnitude are revealed. Viewing with a telescope shows another star of seventh magnitude close to one of the first two. A small scope should reveal the eighth magnitude blue companion of the star omicron Draconis.

Don't forget the planetary nebula called the Cat Eye Nebula, NGC 6543, which lives in Draco. At a magnitude of 8.8, NGC 6543 is one of the brightest in the sky. A small telescope (seventy- to eighty-millimeter aperture) shows a foggy blue-green disk; more powerful scopes are required to reveal the internal structure: a bright irregular helix. It can be found half way between delta Draconis and zeta Draconis.

About five thousand years ago the Earth's axis did not point towards Polaris, our present North Pole Star, but to alpha Draconis, or Thuban. For people living then, this star must have seemed to be as fixed in the sky as Polaris seems to us. The great Egyptian pyramids of Khufu, at Gizeh, seem to have been planned and built with Thuban as a guide when Thuban was the Pole Star around 3000 B.C. The pyramid was built in such a way that Thuban was visible day and night from the bottom of one of the pyramid's deep air shafts. Other pyramids also seem to have been planned and built with the then Pole Star as a focal point.

As with most constellations, Draco has some Greek mythology behind it:

The dragon Tiamat gained possession of the Tablets of Fate, which were supposed to confer upon their owner the power to rule the universe, and gave them to her husband for safekeeping. Then she challenged the authority of the newly risen gods and rose against them in rebellion, summoning forth out of the slimy depths all the most frightful creatures that her evil brain could conceive, monsters whose like has never been seen again. The serpents had fangs that dripped poison. There were scorpion-men and fish-men and monster-dogs. So horrible were these creations that even the gods cowered and hid themselves safely away in their airy heaven. No one could be found who would go down to meet Tiamat. No one, that is, until at last Marduk of Babylon came forward and offered to fight as their champion. He was equipped with special magic powers bestowed on him by the gods at a hurriedly summoned council of war. Thus armed, he went down to face the sea serpent in battle.

Even Marduk trembled and almost lost his nerve at the sight of the dragon and her monster brood. But Marduk had both strength and cunning. He had the winds of heaven on his side. Summoning all their strength together, he sent the winds ahead of him. The great winds blew straight into the jaws of the unsuspecting Tiamat. They rushed through her open mouth in a surging current, with the tearing force of those great hurricanes that sweep the sea. They blew so fiercely into the very bowels of her body that she was racked and split apart. Marduk finished off the helpless monster with a blow of his club. The serpents and the dogs and the scorpion men were useless without the power of their evil genius, and presumably they slunk away and vanished into that yet untamed sea from which they had come.

The Planets and Moon

Mercury is hidden in the glare of the sun all month. Venus will become the evening star shining bright after sunset the latter half of March. Look for it in the west just after sunset. Look for the one-day-old Moon on the 2nd and find Venus 6 degrees to the left of the Moon. Mars is prominent overhead about 9 p.m. each evening. The evening of the 24th has a Mars-Moon conjunction.

The last half of the month, look for Jupiter as the morning star rising ahead of the sun in the east. Saturn can be found rising in the east just after sunset this month. On the morning of the 1st, look for a Moon-Saturn conjunction about 3 hours after sunset. Saturn will be 8 degrees to the upper left of the Moon. Then, on the 2nd, look 90 minutes before sunrise for Saturn and the waxing gibbous Moon in the southwest. On the 21st, the Earth passes directly between Saturn and the sun. The Earth is at its closest to the ringed planet – 789 million miles away. The Moon is new at 3:01PM MDT on the 15th and full at 8:25PM MDT on the 29th. Also, look for little men dressed in green with gold running around on the17th. Daylight Savings starts on the 14th. The Vernal Equinox occurs at 11:32AM on the 20th, signaling the start of Spring.






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