Stargazing in the March Skies

By Cam Wipper, CFHT remote observer

Editor’s note- The delay in posting the column is due to the editor, not Cam.

What You Need: Just your eyes! Everything in this guide can be seen with nothing more than your very own eyes. No special equipment required.

Where To Go: We here on the Big Island are blessed with some of the greatest night skies on Earth. You can find many of the targets listed here from your own backyard. Of course, if you live in Waimea, Hilo or Kailua, the lights of your town can make fainter objects more difficult to see. The best locations are those far from light sources. Some of my favourite locations are Pu’u Huluhulu off of Saddle Road (across from the Maunakea Access Road), along Chain of Craters Road in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (remember: there is no entrance fee after 8pm— perfect for stargazers) and along Mana Road on the slopes of Maunakea.

Surprisingly, the summit of Maunakea, though unbeatable for telescopes, is not the best site for human observers. Due to the thinness of the air, and resultant dearth of oxygen, at the altitude of the summit, human night vision becomes far less efficient than at altitudes closer to sea level. For this reason, it is best to stargaze no higher than 10,000 feet (3000 m). The Maunakea Visitor Information Station is an example of a site located near this elevation.

March 2017 Moon phases for Waimea.
March 2017 Moon phases for Waimea.

What To Look For: Like February, this month is again fairly quiet month for astronomical events—no meteor showers or eclipses visible from Hawaii—so we will focus on the basics: the constellations and planets.

Starting with the planets, we have Venus and Mars visible after sunset in the western sky. While Mars is visible here all month, Venus is only visible for the first week. If you miss Venus though, don’t fret, it will reappear just before sunrise at the very end of month as it moves to the other side of the Sun.

Back at the start of the night, once Mars and Venus set, you’ll have a bit of a wait until our next planet is visible. During the last week of March, Jupiter will appear as early as 19:30! Jupiter will be joined by the bright star Spica in the night sky. The two will be side-by-side for most of the month.

Sunrise/sunset times for Waimea.
Sunrise/sunset times for Waimea.

Finally, early risers will be treated to the most distant planet visible to the human eye, Saturn. Our ringed world appears in the east around 02:30 at the start of the month and as early as 00:30 at the end of the month. It is located in a very special place right now—Saturn is nestled in the heart of the Milky Way. Night Owls who are up to view Saturn will find it sitting just above the constellation Sagittarius, surrounded by the glowing nebulosity of the Galactic Core.

Moving on the stars: At the start of the night, high above us we have Taurus, the Bull, and it’s bright red star, Aldebaran, often called the “Eye of the Bull”.

Below Taurus, we have one of the most famous constellations in the sky: Orion. The famous Belt of Orion is one of the easiest night sky features to find. Look for a vertical row of three bright stars almost due east. To the north of them you will find Betelgeuse, a huge red supergiant star nearing the end of it’s life. To the south, you will see Rigel, a blue-white supergiant, estimated to be around 200,000 times more luminous than the Sun. These two stars are the ninth- and seventh-brightest stars in the night sky respectively.

Although, nearby in the sky, Taurus and Orion are not friends. Greek mythology describes Taurus and Orion as fighting in the sky, with Taurus defending the Seven Sisters from Orion’s rather lustful advances.

Merope Nebula in the Pleiades imaged by CFHT.
Merope Nebula in the Pleiades imaged by CFHT.

These sisters, in reality a stunning group of stars known as an Open Cluster, can be found as well. They are more commonly known as the Pleiades, and are positioned just above Taurus. A quick way to find them is to locate Betelgeuse. Then trace a line in the sky to connect Betelgeuse with Aldebaran. Finally continue that line past Aldebaran, and you will come to the Pleiades.

The Pleiades are well known across the Northern Hemisphere for their beauty and cultures around the world have their names for the group. In Hawaii, they are known as Makali’i, and they are mentioned several times in the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian Creation Chant, including on the fifth line of very first verse.

In Japan they are known as Subaru, a name which graces not only a successful automobile manufacturer (now you know my their logo are stars!), but also a telescope on Maunakea, which as you may guess, is owned by Japan.

Moving into the spring and summer sky, we have the famous Southern Cross moving into our Hawaiian skies. With Hawaii being the only state in the USA to have a view of this iconic southern constellation, it’s appearance is a real treat for visitors and kama’aina alike. It will appear around midnight and reach it’s highest point around 02:00. If you’re sound asleep at this time, don’t worry; it will be visible at a more reasonable hour in the coming months.

'Imiloa's sky map of Kaiwikuamo'o
‘Imiloa’s sky map of Kaiwikuamo’o

With both the Southern Cross and Polaris, the North Star, visible in the sky this month (see last month’s guide for how to find the Polaris), this means that the largest of our traditional Hawaiian constellations, or ‘starlines’ is visible: Ka Iwikuamo’o (“The Backbone”). When included with this starline, the Southern Cross is known as Hanaiakamalama (“Cared for by the Moon”) and Polaris is Hokupa’a (“Fixed Star”). Ka Iwikuamo’o stretches north-south across the sky connecting these two constellations. In between them is a star called Hokule’a. Known as Arcturus is western astronomy, Hokule’a, is a very special star in Hawaii. It is the zenith star, the brightest star in the sky that passes directly through the top—or zenith—of the sky. Ancient Hawaiian and Polynesian navigators knew this and used it as a marker to help guide them to the Hawaiian Islands.

Lastly, rising in the southeast before sunrise we have one of the most spectacular sights in the sky: the aforementioned Milky Way. The center of our galaxy, the Galactic Core, is found between the constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpius, right near Saturn. You’ll need dark skies (i.e no Moon) to find it, so the best times will be at the beginning and end of the month. You’ll want to avoid the two week period centered on the full Moon of March 12th as it will be so bright, faint structures like the Milky Way are lost in the glare.

With that, I wish you clear skies and happy stargazing!

If you have any questions, comments or are new to stargazing and would like some tips on getting started, email me at wipper”at”cfht.hawaii.edu. Aloha!

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