The March and April Night Skies

by Martin Ratcliffe

The biggest event in the skies during March and April is the appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp, which may prove to be the brightest comet in over two decades. If youíre looking at it from a city location, the comet may appear fuzzy and faint. From a more rural location away from city lights, it will appear bright. The comet is best viewed in the dawn sky during early March, and then in the evening sky from late March through early April. During the dawn hours of March an hour before sunrise, it lies far to the left of Jupiter, a brilliant planet low in the east. In early April the comet is expected to be a relatively bright object low in the northwest after sunset. If the tail develops as expected, it will appear to extend upwards from the cometís head. See the Highlights section of this magazine for instructions on photographing Comet Hale-Bopp.

To find out more, visit the Carnegie Science Centerís Henry Buhl, Jr. Planetarium, where the show Comet: From Ice to Fire includes updates and the most recent live images of the comet direct from the World Wide Web.

Partial Eclipse of the Moon

A major partial eclipse of the moon occurs during the evening of March 23. More than 90 percent of the moon will be eclipsed, making it almost total. The eclipse begins at 9:58 p.m. EST and will reach its maximum point at 11:39 p.m. EST. As a bonus, the eclipse will help you to see Comet Hale-Bopp. As the eclipse progresses the sky will darken, resulting in a better view of the cometís tail on the northern horizon.


Also during March and April, look for these planets:

MercuryóThe innermost planet never strays far from the sun, but in early April you can catch a view of it 45 minutes after sunset below the Plieades star cluster in the west. It looks like a bright star. A crescent moon is nearby on April 8 and 9.

MarsóThe red planet is at its best, visible all night and shining bright in the constellation of Leo. It rises in the east at sunset, climbs high in the south around midnight, and sets around sunrise. It will be almost as bright as Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.

JupiteróIf youíre an early riser in March, youíll see Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, as the bright object low in the east before dawn. Look also for Comet Hale-Bopp to Jupiterís far left. Notice that in April the comet has passed into the evening sky, and Jupiter has climbed higher in the morning sky.

Using the Star Map

As the night progresses, the stars will slowly move from east to west, circling around the pole star due to the Earthís rotation. Because the Earth is also moving around the sun, the stars appear a bit farther to the west at the same time each night. Below are the approximate times that this star map will match the sky:

March 1, 11:00 p.m.; March 15, 10:00 p.m.; March 31, 9:00 p.m.; April 15, 8:00 p.m.; April 30, 7:00 p.m.

Martin Ratcliffe directs the Henry Buhl, Jr. Planetarium & Observatory at Carnegie Science Center. Star Map by John French, producer, Henry J. Buhl, Jr. Planetarium.