The ideal time for stargazing is when the sky is darkest. This occurs during the week leading up to new moon (no visible moon) when the moon is waning and visible as a crescent in the early morning sky and continues during the first week following new moon when Luna is waxing and visible as a crescent in the early evening sky. That timeframe is now! New moon occurs on Sunday, February 26 at 9:58 a.m.
In addition, during the months on either side of the spring and autumn equinoxes there’s an elusive phenomenon, the zodiacal light, a glowing cone of light that is visible only in very clear and very dark skies. Around new moon at this time of year – the spring equinox occurs on March 20 – the glowing cone of light appears after nightfall and is popularly known as “false dusk.” Around new moon near the autumn equinox the zodiacal light precedes dawn, appropriately called “false dawn.”
For the best chance of observing the zodiacal light, be in a location free of air and light pollution and with an unobstructed view to the western horizon. Be there from 80 to 120 minutes after sunset. The phenomenon is the result of sunlight reflected from asteroid and meteor dust or, according to another source, light reflected from fragments left over from the formation of the planets of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago.
I asked Kent DeGroff, whose photograph of the zodiacal light graces this article, to confirm whether the points of light over the image are stars. He replied, “Yes, those are stars. It was a time exposure tracking the stars so they are points of light whereas you can see a slight motion blur to the trees on the left.”
Whether you plan on stalking the “equinox light” or not, be sure to gaze up to brilliant planet Venus in the west shortly after sunset and until about 8 p.m. in most locations until March 1. Venus is still at its brightest and high in the sky in evening twilight but it is a pivotal moment for the goddess planet: she has just begun a rather quick descent. By mid-March, Venus will set closer to the sun.
Astrophotography by Kent DeGroff, Whisky Creek Observatory, New Mexico. https://www.flickr.com/photos/whiskey_creek_observatory/
Lunar calendar at http://earthskystore.org/collections/frontpage/products/2017-earthsky-lunar-calendar
OPPORTUNITY TO PARTICIPATE
Advance tickets for April 6 & 7, 2017 Northeast Astronomy Forum (NEAF) http://rockland-astronomy-club.