March Skies To Bring Comet, Moon Eclipse

March 6, 1997

Stargazers have several celestial treats in store for March, from a comet and a partial lunar eclipse to the vernal equinox heralding the first day of spring.

Coloradans should have some gorgeous nighttime views, weather permitting, and those in the Boulder area can attend regular open houses at the University of Colorado at Boulder each Friday in March, except March 28, and April, according to astronomer Katy Garmany, director of Fiske Planetarium and Sommers-Bausch Observatory.

A special eclipse open house is set for Sunday, March 23, from 6:30 p.m. until 11 p.m., weather permitting, at Sommers-Bausch Observatory. Visitors can view the sky through the telescopes, but comet Hale-Bopp will be too low on the horizon and too far north to be visible with the observatory’s fixed instruments.

The comet, discovered in July 1995, can be seen as a fuzzy object in the morning sky about an hour before dawn above the eastern horizon through the end of March. On March 22 it will make its closest approach to Earth and become visible both in the evening after sunset and in the morning before sunrise. Good evening viewing should continue through April.

Comets are “dirty ice balls” thought to be remnants from the solar system’s formation. By observing Hale-Bopp with high-tech instruments astronomers hope to learn more about the origin of Earth and its planets.

On March 23 the full moon moves into the shadow of Earth cast by the sun. The eclipse will be partial, blotting out about 93 percent of the moon’s surface and lasting around three hours during the darkest phase. The shadow will begin to show around 6:45 p.m. and continue until about one-half hour after midnight.

Although the full moon ordinarily would cast too much light to permit viewers to see Hale-Bopp, the March 23 partial eclipse will give stargazers a bonus viewing window for the comet.

Also in March the sun will be directly over the equator for the vernal equinox on March 20 at 6:55 a.m. (MST), the moment spring begins, and Mars will make the closest approach to Earth in its two-year cycle on March 17. Views of the Red Planet should be good in March and the first half of April, particularly on March 23, when Mars will be seen close to the partially eclipsed full moon.

Sommers-Bausch Observatory and Fiske Planetarium are located on the CU-Boulder campus near the corner of Regent Drive and Kittredge Loop Road. For information about public programs call (303) 492-5001 for a recorded message or (303) 492-5002 to speak to staff.

For tips on how and when to view Hale-Bopp, CU-Boulder’s Sommers-Bausch Observatory maintains an electronic home page on the World Wide Web designed for non-scientists at http://lyra.colorado.edu/sbo/hale-bopp/.

HOW TO VIEW A COMET

University of Colorado at Boulder astronomer Keith Gleason offers these tips for viewing comet Hale-Bopp:

•Leave the city lights behind and find a dark place with views of the horizon.

•Let your eyes adapt to the dark, about five to 10 minutes.

•Look slightly off to the side of the comet rather than straight at it for a better view of the tail.

•For closer views, use binoculars, which often are better than telescopes for comet viewing.

•Take your time and enjoy the show. “The longer you look the more detail you’ll see,” Gleason says.

•And if clouds should interfere, Gleason says, “There is always one planet that can be seen -- the third from the sun. Just look down!

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