March: Eye-catching constellations steal the show

As the name implies, the Witch Head Nebula looks suspiciously like a fairytale crone. Formally known as IC 2118, this reflection nebula glows primarily by light reflected from Rigel, and is about 1000 light-years from Earth. Although Rigel is part of the Orion constellation, IC 2118 is considered to be in the neighbouring constellation of Eridanus. Photo: MPAS member Kelly Clitheroe

Observing the stars in March, your eyes will undoubtably be drawn to the constellations sitting in the south-east, centred around the Southern Cross (Crux) and Centaurus. Just above Crux, a little further in Carina, is a glowing region known as the Eta Carina Nebula (NGC 3372). It is visible to the naked eye against the Milky Way, with a dark lane of dust running through it, and it is beautiful when observed through a small telescope.

Looking south you’ll find the False Cross, which is formed by four stars in the constellations Carina and Vela. The False Cross asterism resembles Crux but is somewhat larger. Still in the south is the globular cluster Omega Centaurai (NGC 5139), the largest globular cluster in the Milky Way and a must-see object. A large telescope shows many of its stars, while binoculars show the cluster as a bright patch of light. In the west, the Jewel Box open cluster (NGC 4755) in Crux is a nice target for small telescopes and binoculars.

You can also see plenty of objects with a good pair of binoculars, including the open cluster known as the Southern Pleiades (IC 2602). Its brightest member, the star Theta Carinae, can be seen with the naked eye. If you turn binoculars on the cluster, you can see about 24 other sparkling stars.

Meanwhile, Spica, the brightest star in Virgo, twinkles away in the east, with the blazing Canopus in Carina taking centre stage in the south-west sky. The constellation Orion is gradually sinking out of view, so make the most of it before it disappears. Leo is very much still on show and can be found sitting high in the northern part of the sky. Not far away from Leo, a little lower in the north-west, are the brightest stars of the constellation Gemini: Castor and Pollux.

By Nerida Langcake
This article appeared in the March 2024 issue of the Mornington Peninsula Magazine.