March: Southeast constellations catch the eye as Orion slips from view

This pretty cosmic cloud is Robins Egg (NGC 1360), which nests securely within the boundaries of the southern constellation Fornax some 1500 light-years away. Taking its name from its resemblance to a blue robin’s egg, it’s recognised as a planetary nebula and spans about three light-years. Photo by MPAS member Steven Mohr

Observing the stars in March, your eyes will undoubtably be drawn to the constellations sitting in the southeast, centered 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 is beautiful when observed through a small telescope.

Meanwhile Spica, the brightest star in Virgo, twinkles away in the east, with the blazing Canopus in Carina taking centre stage in the southwest sky. The constellation Orion is gradually sinking out of view, so make the most of it before it disappears.

The galaxy M104 is an interesting target for deep-sky observers using a telescope. It sits in Virgo, which lies to the east in the southern skies. Also known as the Sombrero Galaxy, M104 is famous for a distinctive lane of dust that sits across its faintly glowing form. A relatively large telescope can show the dark lane clearly, but even a modest telescope reveals the galaxy’s elliptical shape.

From March 1-9, Mars will be within binocular distance of the Pleiades cluster, and closest on March 2. Then on March 4, asteroid Vesta is at opposition and just visible to the unaided eye, although it’s best viewed through binoculars.

By Nerida Langcake
This article appeared in the March 2021 issue of the Mornington Peninsula Magazine.