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March 2013 Night Skies Over Tanzania=

March 2013 Night Skies Over Tanzania=

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Published by Othman Michuzi

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Published by: Othman Michuzi on Mar 14, 2013
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08/11/2015

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March Night Skies over Tanzania
By Dr. N. T. Jiwajintjiwaji@yahoo.com
 
A recent story in social media which made newspaper headlines reported that two talentedTanzanian twins had returned to Tanzania after visiting Mars. Such exciting news spreads likewildfire because of people’s fascination with star, planets and outer space. However, the fact thatsuch news is received without question is a cause for concern.Up to now, Mars has been visited by spacecraft only and none of them have returned. There arevery fundamental problems that are currently preventing humans from visiting even nearby planets. The first among them is energy. To carry fuel to reach Mars and have enough left for thereturn journey, spacecraft would have to be so huge that they would not be able to escape theEarth’s gravitational pull. Besides that, there is the biological challenge of surviving the nearlyone year it takes to reach Mars. Add to that the psychological challenge of living in isolatedconfined space for such a long time. The best that has been able to be talked about at this stage isfor a couple to visit Mars and establish a colony there, never to return!! Many other challengesexist including coping with conditions on Mars itself, such as lack of oxygen, extremes of temperature and many more.Hence the story about the return of humans after visiting Mars should have been rejectedoutright. The fact that it was not, and was in fact circulated widely and believed by many, saysmillions about our state of knowledge. To be able to question things requires one to have a solidknowledge base. This can only be obtained through rigorous education. Our reaction to the Marsstory tells us that we still have very far to go.Another wake-up call was delivered by an unexpected meteor strike last month over Russia onFebruary 15. The object was relatively small, about 20 metres wide and exploded about 20kilometres above the Earth’s surface but damaged buildings and caused injury when it explodedover the town of Chelyabinsk. On the same day, another much bigger swimming pool sizeasteroid, called “2012 DA14” passed within the orbits of Earth satellites. This asteroid had beendetected a few months earlier and its path calculated accurately enough to know that it would nothit Earth. There are several other asteroids that are known to have passed near Earth in the pastmonth.The last major asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs was 65 million years ago when a mountainsized asteroid hit the Earth. However even smaller asteroids can cause significant damage suchas wiping out a whole city. So the question at the moment is not “whether they will hit Earth”, but “when will one hit Earth”. Small asteroids are difficult to detect when they are sufficientlyfar away to give us enough warning about an impending disaster. Currently there is a determinedeffort from space agencies around the world to detect and locate in-coming asteroids that may beon collision course with our Earth.While we are concerned about large space objects causing harm, we should understand that theearth is continually hit by thousands of small sand and dust particles. When these strike the
 
atmosphere, they heat up and burn out. At night we see these as shooting stars. At certain timesof the year they are more frequent when the Earth passes through dust left behind by comets.Among the objects from outer space that are currently visiting Earth is the comet Panstarrs. It has been in our southern skies since last week but the recent downpour obstructed us from viewing itnear the western horizon just after sunset. Since we are near the equator, the comet is still abovethe horizon but further north. You will need to scan the bright horizon skies carefully, just belowthe crescent Moon, to catch a glimpse of this comet that has just rounded the Sun in its elongatedorbit from deep space. With the rainy season seemingly upon us a little early, we hope that our viewing will not be obstructed by clouds or rain. Follow further details on the progress of thecomet onhttp://www.astronomyintanzania.or.tzYou will need binoculars to observe the wispy tail of the comet. The tail is formed when theSun’s heat vaporizes the ice and dust that forms the comet. The extremely fine dust is pushedaway by charged particles blown from the sun (called solar wind), and forms a long tail thatalways points away from the Sun.Jupiter is the only planet that is visible half way up above the west horizon in the early night sky.It is close to the red giant star Aldebaran in “V” shape of the mouth of the bull (Taurus)
 
constellation. Saturn rises after 10 pm in the East. The other visible planets, Mars, Mercury,Venus are all close to the position of the Sun so they are cannot be seen. New Moon was on March 11 so this time is best for observing it through telescopes as it is in thecrescent phase and will be most attractive when it is half phase called First Quarter on March 19or soon after that when it has not reached Full Moon phase which will be on March 27. TheThird Quarter is on April 3 when it is again in half phase but this is usually not seen by many because the Moon rises very late, after midnight.The sky map shows the brightest stars Sirius and Canopus as five pointed stars. Other bright starsare shown as spots whose size depends on their brightness. The smallest black dots have a brightness of magnitude four. Fainter stars that can only be seen in rural environment wherethere are no major sources of light pollution are shown in the map as background dots. These areof magnitude 5 and 6. Stars of magnitude greater than 6 cannot be seen with the naked eyes andis the limit of human visibility. Notice that the magnitude scale is in reverse order with brighteststars having lower magnitude number while dim stars have high magnitude.Due to light pollution in cities, municipalities and large towns, the faintest stars that we can seeare of magnitude three or lower. When there is a Moon in the sky, even the magnitude 3 starsmay not be seen easily. More exotic objects such as galaxies, nebulae, ‘dust’ bands, comets etc.are also blocked from our view. At best we can see not more than 300 of more than 1000 starsthat should be visible at a time in the night sky. This shows how much of the natural beauty weare missing just because a huge amount of light is allowed to escape uselessly upward into thedusty air. We need to make just a small effort in awareness and dedication to arrest this growing problem before all the beauty of our urban skies is wiped out.The Milky Way continues to dominate the overhead skies in the early night skies of March. Itstretches from the Southern Cross in the southeast horizon, up through Sirius (the Dog), betweenOrion (the Hunter) and Gemini (the Twins) in the overhead skies, descending to Taurus (theBull) and ending in Perseus in the northwest horizon. Leo (the Lion) fills the eastern sky whilethe pointers Southern Cross in the south and Big Dipper in the north rise early in the west andcan be used to find north-south direction after 9 p.m. Be careful not to confuse the False Crosswith the real one!Moderate light pollution is useful for beginning astronomers since it is best to start observing thesky in cities on a night with moonlight. This will allow the beginner to start by first recognizingthe positions of the brightest stars and then gradually continue observing during moonless nightsand relate these with the known brightest stars. Finally, one can look for the fainter stars awayfrom city lights and also observe star clusters and dust and gas clouds (nebulae).March 20
th
is the day of Equinox when all over the world the length of day and night will beequal.

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