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Polaris is only the 46th brightest star in the night sky, but it's an important one that's been of immense value to navigators. This star is the current Northern Pole Star since it's positioned only three quarters of a degree from the North Celestial Pole. Polaris is edging closer still and on March 24, 2100 it will be less than half a degree away, before starting to slowly drift away.
NGC 4631, also known as the Whale Galaxy, is a magnitude +9.3 edge-on barred spiral galaxy in the constellation of Canes Venatici. It has a high surface brightness and therefore is a good target for small scopes. Larger instruments reveal numerous dust clumps and mottling. The central region of NGC 4631 is a starburst region, where intensive star formation is currently taking place.
William Herschel discovered the Whale Galaxy on March 20, 1787. It's located 28 million light-years away and is best seen from northern latitudes during the months of March, April or May.
NGC 2403 is an intermediate spiral galaxy located in the faint northern constellation of Camelopardalis. This superb mag. +8.4 object is about 10 Million light-years distant and is an outlying member of the M81 group of galaxies that also includes M81 "Bode's Galaxy" and M82 "the Cigar Galaxy". Since it's relatively near and almost face-on from our perspective, NGC 2403 displays intricate details in its spiral arms especially through large amateur scopes.
NGC 2403 was discovered on November 1, 1788 by William Herschel and is best seen from northern latitudes during the months of January, February and March. It's number 7 in the Caldwell catalogue.
Lynx is home to the fascinating globular cluster NGC 2419. Although visually faint and small what makes NGC 2419 special is its distance; at 275,000 light-years it's one of the furthest known Milky Way globulars. In fact, twentieth century American astronomer Harlow Shapley nicknamed it "The Intergalactic Tramp" believing it to have possibly broken away from the Milky Way and headed off into deep inter galactic space. However, recent observations indicate Shapley hypothesis was incorrect and NGC 2419 is still gravitationally bound to the Milky Way just moving in a highly eccentric orbit.
NGC 2419 or Caldwell 25 was discovered by William Herschel on December 31, 1788. It's located 275,000 light-years from the Solar System and about 300,000 light-years from the galactic centre, almost twice as far away as the Large Magellanic Cloud. At such a distance it's estimated NGC 2419 will take about 3 billion years to complete a single orbit around the centre of the galaxy.
NGC 2419 is positioned 7 degrees north and slightly east of Castor (α Gem - mag. +1.58) the second brightest star in Gemini. About 4 arc minutes west of NGC 2419 is a mag. +7.2 star with a double star of mag. +7.9 a few more arc minutes further west. Even Herschel with his super telescopes of the time couldn't resolve NGC 2419 into stars. William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, using his 72-inch (1.83 m) reflecting telescope at Birr Castle in Ireland - the largest optical telescope in the world at the time - was first the first to do so in 1850.
Algol (β Per) is a bright eclipsing binary system located in the northern constellation of Perseus and one of the best-known variable stars in the sky. Often referred to as the "Demon Star", most of the time it shines at mag. +2.1 but every two days, 20 hours and 49 minutes it suddenly dips in brightness to mag. +3.4, remaining dim for about 10 hours before returning to its original state.
Why the brightness change. The Algol system consists of at least three-stars (β Per A, β Per B and β Per C) with the orbital plane of Algol A and B directly in line with the Earth. The regular dips in brightness occur when the dimmer B star moves in front of and eclipses the brighter A star. There is also an extra dimension in that a secondary eclipse occurs when the brighter star occults the fainter secondary, resulting in a very small dip in brightness that can be detected with photo-electrical equipment.
Mercury, the innermost planet, is now heading towards greatest eastern elongation (GEE), which it reaches on March 15th. Observers at northern-based locations should be able to spot the elusive planet just after sunset during the first 3 weeks of the month, when it appears low down above the western horizon. Each subsequent evening, from March 1st, it gradually improves in altitude with a longer visibility until GEE is reached. The planet will then be positioned 18 degrees from the Sun and shine at magnitude -0.4. After that, Mercury gradually sinks back towards the horizon until about 10 days later when it's finally lost to the bright twilight sky. From northern locations this also happens to be the best evening apparition of the year.
During the first few days of the month, Venus and Mercury appear close together. Venus is 12x brighter than its inner neighbour and on March 5th the two planets are separated by 1.4 degrees. Binoculars will assist locating Mercury, especially in the bright twilight, but don't use them until after the Sun has set. From southern latitudes, Mercury is not so well placed at this time. At GEE it sets only forty minutes after the Sun and will be difficult to spot in twilight. However, much brighter Venus is situated four degrees to the south and acts as a good marker.
Venus, mag. -3.9, can be seen low towards the west after sunset. As the month progresses the brilliant planet rises a little higher in the sky each subsequent evening and by months end, from northern temperature latitudes, sets about 90 minutes after the Sun. For those further south, the planet sets an hour after the Sun on the last day of the month.
As mentioned above, Mercury and Venus are positioned close together during the start of the month. On March 19th, the thin waxing crescent Moon passes 4 degrees south of Venus and on March 29th, Venus passes only 0.1 degrees south of Uranus. At mag. +5.9, Uranus is almost 10,000x fainter than Venus. Binoculars or a small telescope will be required to spot distant Uranus, although both planets will easily fit in the same field of view.
Mercury is currently located on the far side of the Sun. The innermost planet passes through superior conjunction on February 16th. Throughout the month it remains too close to the Sun to be safely observed.
Venus returns to the evening sky for the first time since March 2017. The brilliant planet shines at mag. -3.9 and can be seen during twilight from northern locations, very low above the western horizon towards the end of month. However, those living further south will struggle to spot the planet.
M97, also known as the Owl Nebula, is a famous planetary nebula located in the constellation of Ursa Major. It was discovered by Pierre Mechain on February 16, 1781 and is one of only four planetary nebulae listed in the Messier catalogue. Although not particularly bright at magnitude +9.9, it's a superb object and regarded as one of the most complex examples of its type. The name Owl Nebula was first coined in 1848 by William Parsons the 3rd Earl of Rosse, who noticed owl-like "eyes".
Locating M97 is easy as it's positioned only 2.5 degrees southeast of bright star Merak (β UMa - mag. +2.3). This is the southwest corner star of the bowl of the famous Plough or Big Dipper asterism of Ursa Major. In the same wide field telescope field of view, 50 arc minutes northwest of M97, is barred spiral galaxy M108 (mag. +10.2).
The Owl Nebula is best seen from Northern Hemisphere latitudes during the months of March, April and May. From latitudes north of 35N, it's circumpolar and therefore never sets.
NGC 4565, also known as the Needle Galaxy, is the finest and brightest example of an edge-on spiral galaxy in the sky. It shines at magnitude +9.5 and therefore is bright enough to be seen with small telescopes. The galaxy is located in the constellation of Coma Berenices. Since positioned at the eastern edge of the sprawling naked eye Coma Star Cluster (Mel 111), it's easy to find.
NGC 4565 was discovered by William Herschel on April 6, 1785. It's number 38 in the Caldwell catalogue and is best seen from northern locations during the months of March, April and May. This spiral is physically large and similar in size to the Andromeda Galaxy (M31).