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One of the great natural events takes place on March 20, 2015 when a total solar eclipse is visible from the North Atlantic. This time, the narrow band of totality streaks across a path that starts in the ocean just south of Greenland, touches land in the Faroe Islands and Svalbard before finally ending at the North Pole. A partial eclipse is visible in Europe, North Africa and North and East Asia.
A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun, thereby totally or partially obscuring the Sun's image for an observer on Earth. Total eclipses are only possible due to a piece of nature's luck. By sheer coincidence the Sun is about 400 times larger in size than the Moon but also about 400 times more distance and therefore to the observer on the ground, both the Sun and the Moon present about the same (apparent) size in the sky. The apparent size or diameter of the Sun and the Moon do exhibit small variations; at times the Moon appears slightly larger in the sky than the Sun and vice-versa.
A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon's apparent diameter is larger than the Sun and blocks all direct sunlight, turning day into darkness. This path of totality occurs inside a narrow band that touches the surface of the Earth. It has a maximum width of only 267 kilometres (167 miles). On the other hand, for a partial solar eclipse the shadow is many thousands of kilometres wide and the partial eclipse is visible over a much larger region.
NGC 2477 is a stunning open cluster located in the Milky Way rich constellation of Puppis. It's arguably the constellations finest cluster which also contains other superb examples such as M46, M47 and M93. At magnitude +5.8, NGC 2477 is faintly visible to the naked eye but easily seen with binoculars and a fantastic telescope object, especially in medium to large scopes.
The cluster was discovered by French astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lacaille during his tour of South Africa in 1751-52. In total it contains about 300 stars packed into an area 27 arc minutes in diameter with the brightest member star shining at magnitude +9.8. The four-magnitude difference between the combined cluster magnitude and the brightest component is an indication of how rich the cluster is.
NGC 2477 is too far south to have been included in Charles Messier's catalogue, but if he had observed from a more southerly latitude than Paris he almost certainly would have noticed this striking object. Twentieth century America astronomer Robert Burnham described NGC 2477 as "probably the finest of the galactic clusters in Puppis".
Mercury starts March about halfway through an extended morning visibility period for observers at equatorial and southern latitudes. On February 24th, the fast moving planet reached greatest elongation west and was at highest altitude for this apparition. For example, from latitude 35S (approx. equal to Sydney, Cape Town and Santiago) Mercury was easily visible at magnitude 0.0, hovering 16 degrees above the eastern horizon, 45 minutes before sunrise.
During March, its altitude decreases each subsequent morning but the planet remains visible until lost to the bright twilight glare a few days before months end. However, it should be noted that Mercury doesn't reach maximum brightness (mag -0.7) until the very end of the visibility period, more than 4 weeks after greatest elongation west!
As it heads towards the outer depths of the Solar System, comet Lovejoy remains visible with small telescopes and even good binoculars during March. Although now fading and past its best the comet has been a delight over recent months and should remain well within amateur astronomer range for some time to come. For a number of days in late December / early January it even was visible to the naked eye (peak mag. +3.9).
Lovejoy was the fifth comet to be discovered by prolific Australian comet hunter and amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy. He captured it on August 17, 2014 using nothing more than a 200mm (8-inch) scope with a digital camera attached. The subsequent set of time-lapsed images revealed nothing just a faint point of light (mag. +15) that moved slightly from image to image.
NGC 2506 is a magnitude +7.6 rich open cluster located in the constellation of Monoceros. Although its member stars are faint the cluster itself appears quite bright and can be seen with a pair of binoculars. Through telescopes it's an impressive object and of all the Monoceros open clusters it's probably the finest. With an age of 1.1 billion years old this is an old cluster. For comparison, M45 (The Pleiades) in Taurus is a youthful 115 million years old with the Hyades cluster 625 million years old. However, NGC 2506 is not nearly as old as the 4 billion years of M67 in Cancer.
William Herschel discovered NGC 2506 on February 23, 1791. Locating the cluster can sometimes be a bit tricky as it's positioned in an area of sky devoid of bright stars. It can be found 5 degrees east-southeast of alpha Mon (α Mon - mag. +3.94) the brightest star in Monoceros. Located 19 degrees southwest of NGC 2506 is the brightest star in the sky, Sirius (α CMa - mag. -1.46). Although α Mon and Sirius are the brightest stars in their respective constellations the difference in apparent brightness between them is enormous, more than 100x.
Large open cluster M48 lies 6 degrees northeast of NGC 2506 with open cluster pair M46 and M47 positioned 6 degrees southwest of NGC 2506. They are best seen during the months of December, January and February.
NGC 40 is a planetary nebula located in the northern constellation of Cepheus. It was discovered by William Herschel on November 25, 1788 who described it as "a 9th magnitude star, surrounded with milky nebulosity". Herschel used his 475mm (18.7) inch telescope to make the discovery but for today's amateur astronomers such a large scope isn't required, it can be glimpsed with just a 100mm (4-inch) instrument. NGC 40 is also known as the Bow Tie nebula, a nickname it shares with another planetary nebula, NGC 2440 in Puppis.
NGC 40 is located just over 17 degrees from the North Celestial Pole and therefore circumpolar from most northern latitudes. It's one of the finest examples of its type in the far northern part of the sky. The best time to look for the nebula is during October, November and December when it appears highest in the sky during early evening. The Bow Tie nebula is also visible from most tropical locations although lower down. However, from southern temperate latitudes it's not visible at all.
Locating NGC 40 can be precarious as it's positioned in a star poor region of eastern Cepheus. One method to find it is by imagining a line connecting Errai (γ Cep - mag. +3.21) and γ Cas (mag. +2.15). The planetary lies approximately one-third of the way along this line.
The Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) is a large and famous planetary nebula located in the faint zodiac constellation of Aquarius. Also known as Caldwell 63 it's one of the nearest objects of its type; a beautiful remnant of a dying star containing a double ring structure not unlike two coils of a spring, hence the popular name "The Helix Nebula".
Although the immediate area surrounding the Helix Nebula is devoid of any particular bright stars, the region can be easily located by star-hoping. NGC 7293 lies roughly halfway along an imaginary line connecting Fomalhaut (α PsA - mag. +1.2) the brightest star in the southerly constellation of Piscis Austrinus and ι Aqr (mag. +4.3). Just over one degree to the east of the Helix Nebula is υ Aqr. At magnitude +5.2 this star is visible to the naked eye under dark skies, simplifying the search for the Helix Nebula.
NGC 2392 is a 9th magnitude bipolar double shell planetary nebula located in the constellation of Gemini. Resembling a person's head surrounded by a parka hood, it's commonly known as the "Eskimo Nebula" or "Clown Face Nebula". William Herschel discovered it from his observatory in Slough on January 17, 1787, describing the planetary nebula as a 9th magnitude star with a bright centre surrounded by equally dispersed nebulosity.
Locating the Eskimo Nebula is relatively easy; it's positioned just east of centre of the bright zodiacal constellation of Gemini, "the Twins" and close to Wasat (δ Gem - mag. +3.5). The easiest way to find Gemini is by identifying its two brightest stars Castor (α Gem - mag. +1.58) and Pollux (β Gem - mag. +1.16). They are positioned east of the familiar "V" shaped asterism of Taurus and to the northeast of the bright prominent constellation of Orion.
Imagine a line extending from Pollux - the brighter of the twins - towards the southwest in the direction of Orions belt. Positioned just over 8 degrees along this line is Wasat and 2.3 degrees southeast of Wasat is NGC 2392. The planetary nebula is positioned next to a mag. +8.2 yellow white star. At first glance through a telescope the pair appears like a wide double star, separated by about 100 arc seconds.
NGC 869 and NGC 884 are two bright open clusters in the constellation of Perseus that are separated by only half a degree of apparent sky. Together they are commonly known as the "Double Cluster" and form a famous showpiece object that's easily visible to the naked eye and a wonderful sight in binoculars and telescopes. It appeals to all types and sizes of optical scopes. Both clusters have been known since antiquity and probably pre-historically. Greek astronomer Hipparchus first catalogued them around 130 B.C with early celestial cartographers naming them as "h Persei" (NGC 869) and "χ Persei" (NGC 884).
The Double Cluster is located in the far northwestern part of Perseus close to the border with Cassiopeia. With a declination of 57N it's circumpolar from many northern locations and therefore never sets. To locate the object draw an imaginary line from Mirfak (α Per - mag +1.8) in a northwesterly direction towards the centre of the famous "W" of Cassiopeia. The Double Cluster lies just over halfway along this line. It's listed as number 14 in the Caldwell catalogue.