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Marvels in the March twilight

March 17, 2010 at 12:59 PM

GateHouse News Service

If you have a clear, open view to the west, this is a good time to marvel at the wonders of the universe after you finish dinner.

Early in the evening, as twilight is setting in, look for a brilliant point of light contrasting with the deepening ashen blue. This is the planet Venus, the second rock from the sun.

Its nearness to our star and its white cloud cover reflect a lot of sunlight back to us, making Venus so prominent.

New moon arrives March 15 at 5:01 p.m. The very next night, you may be able to see the very slim crescent moon low on the western horizon. Look about 30 minutes after sunset. The sliver of the moon lies to the lower right of Venus. Binoculars will help. The pairing is still impressive on March 17. The crescent will be a bit thicker, and will be positioned noticeably higher, to the upper right of Venus.

It is important that you look at the Moon and Venus that night with green-colored sunglasses. They may be too dark for you to see anything in the sky, but at least you’ll be fashionable for St. Patrick’s’ Day.

Venus shines at magnitude -3.9 this month, which is far brighter than any star in the night sky. When it is visible higher and in a darker sky, it is noted by even the casual bystander who rarely considers looking up. Venus is regaled as the Evening Star, when it is prominent in the east before sunrise, as the Morning Star. There were instances during World War II when American forces were startled by Venus and fired at it, thinking it was an enemy plane.

If you gave even a small telescope, be sure to examine the crescent moon. Note how the darkened portion of the moon is filled in with faint light, visible to unaided eyes as well.

This is Earth shine, light reflected off the good Earth. It is another proof that the Earth is round. If you are in eastern North America after sunset, you are witnessing the sunlight reflecting off the western side of the continent and the Pacific Ocean.

Venus currently appears as a tiny round dot in a small telescope. The planet will likely appear as a quivering blob due to the turbulence in our own atmosphere, viewed at a low angle. Over the next few months, keep watch in a telescope as Venus moves up in its orbit and changes phase, growing in size and becoming half-lit like a first quarter moon, and then a large crescent.

After darkness sets in and before the moon gets very far along, try and see the Zodiacal Light. This is a thin band of very fine dust particles spread around the sun past the Earth’s orbit. If you have very clear, dark skies, you should be able to see the dim, diffuse glow. It appears in the west as a tall cone, standing high and angled a bit to the left at this time of year.

I have only been able to see it once, while traveling at night in a jet airliner, high above light pollution and haze. From home, light pollution is a bit too much in the western sky, but perhaps you can fare better. Let me know if you see it.

Forty years ago this month (in the last column I mistakenly said 30), on March 7, 1970, there was a special event in the sky. Did you see it? The new moon covered the sun, creating a total solar eclipse. The eclipse path crossed parts of the eastern United States and Nova Scotia. From northeast Pennsylvania, it was a partial eclipse, which I fondly recall viewing with a special filter.

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