Friday, March 21
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Tuesday, March 25
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Thursday, March 27
Friday, March 28
Saturday, March 29
Want to become a better astronomer? Learn your way around the constellations. They're the key to locating everything fainter and deeper to hunt with binoculars or a telescope.
This is an outdoor nature hobby. For an easy-to-use constellation guide covering the whole evening sky, use the big monthly map in the center of each issue of Sky & Telescope, the essential guide to astronomy. Or download our free Getting Started in Astronomy booklet (which only has bimonthly maps).
Once you get a telescope, to put it to good use you'll need a detailed, large-scale sky atlas (set of charts). The standards are the little Pocket Sky Atlas, which shows stars to magnitude 7.6; the larger and deeper Sky Atlas 2000.0 (stars to magnitude 8.5); and once you know your way around, the even larger Uranometria 2000.0 (stars to magnitude 9.75). And read how to use sky charts with a telescope.
You'll also want a good deep-sky guidebook, such as Sue French's Deep-Sky Wonders collection (which includes its own charts), Sky Atlas 2000.0 Companion by Strong and Sinnott, the bigger Night Sky Observer's Guide by Kepple and Sanner, or the beloved if dated Burnham's Celestial Handbook.
Can a computerized telescope replace charts? Not for beginners, I don't think, and not on mounts and tripods that are less than top-quality mechanically (able to point with better than 0.2° repeatability, which means fairly heavy and expensive). As Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer say in their invaluable Backyard Astronomer's Guide, "A full appreciation of the universe cannot come without developing the skills to find things in the sky and understanding how the sky works. This knowledge comes only by spending time under the stars with star maps in hand."
This Week's Planet Roundup
Mercury (magnitude 0.0) is very low above the east-southeast horizon a half hour before sunrise. It's moving a little lower each day. Look for it about 20° lower left of bright Venus. Binoculars will help.
Venus (magnitude –4.5) rises as the bright "Morning Star" just before the beginning of dawn and moves higher as the sky lightens; look southeast. In a telescope it appears just about half lit.
Mars (magnitude –1.1, in Virgo) rises around nightfall — a fiery blaze with fainter Spica 5° to its lower right. They're highest in the south around 2 or 3 a.m. daylight-saving time, with Spica now under Mars.
In a telescope Mars has grown to 14 arcseconds wide, almost as large as the 15.1″ it will attain when passing closest by Earth in mid-April. See the telescopic Mars map and observing guide in the March Sky & Telescope, page 50.
Jupiter, magnitude –2.3, in Gemini, dominates the sky overhead in twilight (for midnorthern skywatchers). It sinks westward through the evening and sets around 3 a.m. See our articles on observing Jupiter in the January Sky & Telescope or the briefer online introduction Jupiter: Big, Bright, and Beautiful.
Saturn (magnitude +0.3, in Libra) rises around 11 p.m. and is highest in the south around 4 a.m. By then it's far left of Mars and Spica, and less far to the upper right of Antares. Saturn's rings are tilted a wide 22° to our line of sight for most of this spring.
Uranus and Neptune are lost behind the glare of the Sun.
"We may be little guys, but we don’t think small. It’s the courage of questions, of grasping our true circumstances, and not pretending we are at the center of it all, that is adulthood."
— Ann Druyan, 2014
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