How you can spot three planets in the morning sky this month with nothing more than a pair of binoculars

01 March, 2020 - 16:00
Astronomer, Neil Norman  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Astronomer, Neil Norman Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN


Stargazers were treated to the spectacular sight of a green fireball on the same night five planets and a new moon were all discovered - here Neil Norman, an astronomer from Suffolk, tells us more about the night of February 16, 2020.

Astronomer, Neil Norman  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNAstronomer, Neil Norman Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

On the night of February 16, at 9.52pm those of us outside were treated to a spectacular sight - a large green fireball burning up above us. Dozens of reports came in from across (mostly) the eastern side of the country from as far away as Yorkshire all the way down to Surrey.

On any given night, one can expect to see a few shooting stars zip across the sky and these are known as sporadic as they are pieces of debris entering the atmosphere at any time and from any direction.

Meteor showers differ because they have a direct point in the sky that they appear to originate from. This is called the radiant and these meteors are the result of the Earth encountering debris left behind from comets that have passed close to the orbit of the Earth and are very predictable throughout the year.

The fireball of February 16 was rare because of its colour. Most glow with a yellow or white hue, but the colour green indicates that the meteor was metal-rich, either copper or nickel instead of the usual rocky fragments.

This now tells us that the meteor was either man-made debris (though unlikely) or a piece of a metallic asteroid that had collided in the distant past with the resulting fragment colliding with us on that night.

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The speed of the fireball was around 15-20km/s, or around 38,000mph to split the difference. This would indicate that during its appearance it travelled about 31 miles in the 3 seconds before burning up, around two miles above us.

I must congratulate two friends of mine, Theodore Pruyne and Kacper Wierzchos of the Mount Lemmon survey (working alongside the Catalina Sky Survey), for the discovery of an interesting asteroid on February 15. It was in the constellation of Virgo and at a relatively close distance to Earth of just 91 million miles. The orbit indicated that it was in some way bound with Earth, and it turns out that it is indeed another moon (albeit a very small one being just 2-4 meters in diameter). The Earth had apparently captured this object in around 2017/18 and it has been orbiting us since then.

The little asteroid will soon be expelled from its orbit though in around April this year due to another gravitational interaction with Earth at that time.

Venus blazes high after sunset at the moment and on the evening of March 7/8 it will be close to the faintest planet visible to the naked eye - Uranus. On these evenings, Uranus will be located at the 7pm position if you imagine Venus to be a clock face. A pair of modest binoculars will be required to see the tiny blue-ish disc, but they make a startling visual treat being paired together.

The morning pre-dawn sky offers us three planets - Mars, Venus and Saturn.

On March 1, looking towards the south eastern sky, the three make a diagonal pattern with Saturn closest to the horizon, Jupiter at centre and Mars to the top right at 05.50. On March 18 the waning crescent moon joins the trio and sits just below Mars with Jupiter now beside Mars and Saturn still to the left at 05.20.

On March 20, Jupiter will appear very close and above Mars with Saturn getting ever closer to the left of the pair at 05.20, and finally at 04.50 on March 31, the trio appear to make a triangle with Jupiter to the upper right of the close pairing of Mars and Saturn.

Also, this month sees the spring equinox occur on Friday, March 20. Let's hope for some spring-like weather at last.

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