Days are getting longer, birds begin to come back and yes, you can already feel it in the air: spring is coming. For astronomers and astrophotographers this means (slightly) warmer nights, longer days and, most importantly, galaxy season! Let’s see what the universe has to offer this month.
March 2 – New Moon. The New Moon is the first lunar phase, when the far side of our natural satellite is fully lit leaving the side visible from Earth in the dark. Mark this date on your calendar for this is the best time to observe or photograph faint objects such as galaxies, nebulas or star clusters as there is no moonlight brightening the sky!
March 18 – Full Moon. The full Moon in March is the Worm Moon. The name comes from the ancient Native Americans and refers to the earthworms that begin appearing as the soil warms, providing delicious food for robins and other birds —a true sign of spring! The full Moon is obviously well visible to the naked eye but the view through a telescope or binoculars is an unforgettable experience.
March 20 – Spring Equinox. The March equinox marks the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere and the first day of autumn in the southern part of the globe. On this day, the Sun shines directly on the equator and there will be nearly equal amounts of day and night throughout the world.
March 28 – Conjunction of the Moon and Venus. A 26-day old Moon will have a close encounter with Venus on this night, passing just 6°40′ to south of our sister planet. The pair will be visible in the dawn sky before sunset, from 05:45am CET before being washed out once the Sun comes up. This event is visible to the naked eyed although a pair of binoculars can deliver amazing views!
DSOs in March. “Galaxy season” is approaching fast in the northern hemisphere and some jewels are already climbing their way up in the night sky. This is the period of the year when our view of the Universe is no longer blocked by our own Milky Way and thousands of galaxies can finally be observed or photographed.
Some of the most common targets among astrophotographers include the Pinwheel Galaxy (M101), the iconic Whirlpool Galaxy (M51), and the Sombrero Galaxy (M104). Magnificent views are also offered by the Black Eye Galaxy (M64), the Southern Pinwheel Galaxy (M83), the Needle Galaxy (NGC 4565) and the Whale Galaxy (NGC 4631).
I particularly love clusters or groups of galaxies, such as the Leo Triplet (M65, M66 and NGC 3628), the Markarian’s chain, a stretch of galaxies located in the constellation Virgo, or The Bode (M81) and Cigar (M82) galaxies, which are remarkably close and are usually framed together.
Globular clusters are one of the best sights through a telescope or binoculars and represent a valid photographic alternative. The most prominent are the Great Star cluster in Hercules (M13), the Rose cluster (M5) and the Snowglobe cluster (NGC 5466).