Article as first published in The Shetland Times March 2000


Did you have any luck finding Mercury last month? It was not easy. A photograph was taken about 55 minutes after sunset at about the time of civil twilight, when the Sun is 6 degrees below the horizon. So planet watching is best started no earlier than this after sunset.

For March Mercury, Venus, Uranus and Neptune are morning objects and quite near the Sun. Mars, Jupiter and Saturn can still be seen in the southwest in the evening. So use binoculars to see the different colours of the planets as well as the moons of Jupiter.

There is a new Moon on the 6th and full Moon is on the 20th so the best star gazing can be done up to the 13th of the month - the Moon does not get in the way.

The constellation of Gemini is seen in the South at about 9pm on the 15th. Gemini immortalises the twin brothers Castor and Pollux, known as the Dioscuri or "sons of Zeus".

Castor was mortal, Pollux was not. When Castor was speared during a dispute over cattle, Pollux beseeched Zeus to allow his beloved brother to share his immortality - instead of joining the other shades in Hades. The request was granted and the brothers spent alternate days in Hades and on Mount Olympus until they were transported to the sky and became the guardians of mariners endangered by storms - to whom they appear as St.Elmo's Fire.

Off to the right of the chart you will see an object marked as M 35. This is a galactic star cluster and looks as big as the full Moon. You might see it with the unaided eye on a dark night but it can easily be seen with binoculars. Once you have found M35 in binoculars look to the southwest of it. You should see a fuzzy patch called NGC 2158 this is another more distant star cluster. M 35 is about 2,500 light years away while NGC 2158 is about 16,000 light years away.

The 'Seven Sisters' or Pleiades in Taurus is the best known galactic star cluster. Easily seen with the naked eye and beautiful in binoculars, it is to the west of Gemini. See how many stars you can see with the unaided eye. Six or seven should be easy to see and up to 16 have been claimed. Use binoculars and then try counting!

The objects designated as M objects come from the eighteenth century catalogue of Charles Messier. They were a list of objects that looked fuzzy like comets but didn't move. The NGC numbers come from the New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars published in 1888.

It is possible, further South, to see all 100 or so Messier objects in one night but an hour well wrapped up under Shetland skies is all that is required to appreciate the beauty of a starry night.


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