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Observing Highlights for March: Spring Galaxies

March 2014 Leo Triplet Scott Anttila WikicommonsIn North America, daylight saving time begins March 9, when we set our clocks forward one hour. Europe changes its clocks to summer time on the last Sunday in March. Much of North America has suffered through a long, cold winter and is ready for some warmer days and nights. Spring arrives with the equinox on March 20 at 9:57 a.m., which brings equal days and nights as we leave the darkness of winter and head toward the long days of summer.

Most stargazers haven’t seen much more than the brightest and easiest targets this winter, such as Jupiter, Venus, and the moon. Venus is currently in the morning sky in the constellation Sagittarius, leaving Jupiter to dominate the evening, shining from nearly overhead. Many bright stars surround Jupiter in the Winter Hexagon, including the brightest star in the sky, Sirius in the constellation Canis Major. Sirius can be found directly below Jupiter. Compare how much more brightly Jupiter shines at magnitude -2.4 than Sirius at magnitude -1.1. Although Sirius is an enormous roiling ball of fire, Jupiter’s closeness to us makes all the difference.

Look at Jupiter through a telescope to spot its brightest moons and the dark and light stripes upon its atmosphere. Watch for satellites to disappear and reappear from in front of and behind Jupiter, such as on the evening of March 5, when Ganymede reappears from behind Jupiter.

March will have two new moons, on the 1st and 30th. On March 2, look for the young crescent moon just above the western horizon at sunset. On March 7, the moon will be by the Hyades cluster in Taurus and the reddish star Aldebaran, and on March 9 and 10 the moon will sidle up to Jupiter and then pass it. The full moon for March occurs on the 16th in the constellation Virgo.

Virgo rising is a sure sign of spring. As Virgo enters the night sky, it brings with it its brightest star, Spica, along with a visitor, Mars. Mars is the brighter, redder object of the pair. March 18 will find the moon in close quarters with Spica and Mars.

Springtime is also known as galaxy season, and many island universes can be found in Virgo and its neighbor Leo. You can look at a star chart to see a huge smattering of galaxies sprinkled across spring constellations, but without some experience and dark skies, they can be a challenge to track down. Use a medium-size scope to spot some of these 8th and 9th magnitude galaxies. The Leo Triplet (NGC 3628, M65, and M66) is a popular target on the hind leg of Leo the Lion. For those with binoculars, try spotting the Coma Berenices star cluster just above the tail of Leo the Lion. These stars lie about 280 light-years away.

On March 20, the moon will rise about two degrees away from Saturn in the late evening. Saturn will rise earlier each night in spring as it makes way for the summer constellations and Milky Way nebulae that are strewn behind it. 

Image: The Leo Triplet is popular member of the spring galaxies. Credit: Scott Anttila/Wikicommons

HS_KellyWhittKelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.



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February Skies: Spotting the Zodiacal Light

Zodiacal Light Dominic Cantin Wiki CommonsOne of the more elusive members of our solar system to observe is the Zodiacal Light. Late February is a good time of year to try to spot this dust that lies in the plane of our solar system. This plane is also called the path of the ecliptic, and it’s where we find the planets as they journey around our sky. The reason February is a good time to spot the Zodiacal Light is that the ecliptic rises away from the horizon at a steep angle, allowing the light to rise up in a pyramidal shape. The thicker part of the Zodiacal Light will be near the horizon and the light will taper off as it climbs upward.

Look west an hour or two after dark on a moon-free night. There is no New Moon in February, but there is one on January 30 and March 1, which means both the beginning and end of February will have dark skies and will be a good time to search for the Zodiacal Light. Getting away from cities and light pollution is also essential.

With no New Moon in February, that means the Full Moon will fall midmonth, which it does on February 14, reaching 100-percent lit at 3:53 p.m. PST. This Valentine’s Full Moon will be accompanied by the star Regulus in Leo the Lion, just to the moon’s left. (Side note: As there is not always a New Moon in the short month of February, there is also occasionally no Full Moon. The next February without a Full Moon will be in 2018, which will give both January and March two Full Moons each, the second one in each of those months being a Blue Moon.)

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Olympic Island For Sale off Scottish Coast

Ailsa Craig in the distanceHave a spare $2.5 million lying around? In search of an ancient volcanic island with an Olympic pedigree? Ailsa Craig off the coast of Scotland might be right for you! The granite of this uninhabited island in the Irish Sea is the source for the majority of curling stones throughout the world, and it is also home to one of the largest gannet colonies in Europe.

Kays of Scotland has been manufacturing curling stones from Ailsa Craig since 1851, with the Blue Hone and Common Green granite of the island being considered the cream of the crop in the curling world. Its water resistant nature is described as being ideal for slick and controlled gliding across the ice. Quarrying of the island's granite ended in 1969, but there still remains vast reserves of its famed volcanic rocks in the crumbling infrastructure of the island.

Once described by the Irish poet John Keats as a "craggy ocean pyramid," the island is now owned by the Scottish peer Archibald Angus Charles Kennedy, the 8th Marquess of Ailsa. The marquess's family has owned the island since the 16th century, but due to bloated inheritance taxes and decades of dwindling revenue, he has been forced to put the ancient island on the market.

Ailsa Craig comes equipped with a ruined castle, a solar powered lighthouse, and a humble cottage. Its castle dates back to the 16th century and was used as a defense against Spanish invaders; the island was also a refuge for Catholics fearing persecution during the Scottish Reformation. It later served as a prison during the 18th and 19th centuries, resembling a sort of Scottish Alcatraz.

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The Two-Wheeled Adventure: Tips for Bike Camping

Biking down the roadLooking for an eco-friendly alternative to car camping? Bike camping, or bike touring, can be one of the most physically demanding as well as rewarding ways to experience the outdoors. Climbing hills while towing 40-50 pounds of camping gear has the potential to exhaust, but the freedom that the bicycle affords and the contemplation that it fosters is worth the effort. Nevertheless, bike touring is not as simple as just hopping on your beach cruiser with a backpack and peddling off into the wilderness, as a considerable amount of preparation is essential.

We spoke with Raymond Bridge, the author of Bike Touring: The Sierra Club Guide to Travel on Two Wheels, to learn how to plan a successful bike camping trip.

Know your bike

Bridge says that perhaps the most important preparation for bike camping is knowing your bike and knowing when something is wrong. For beginners, "The main thing is to do a lot of riding around home first," said Bridge. "You need to be fairly familiar with your bike, because if you need to make adjustments, it's helpful to know what you're doing."

Get the right gear

Not all bikes are made for bike touring, and it's extremely helpful to have rear bike rack with panniers. You'll want to put your most cumbersome camping equipment here, such as tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads. It's also possible to strap some equipment to your front handlebars, but using a rear bike rack is safer and makes handling easier. 

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Q&A: Alex Honnold, Simply "Pysched"

Alex Honnold Alex Honnold competes in a sport more commonly covered by National Geographic than ESPN. Yet he's likely garnered more media attention than any other climber before him, for an obvious reason: He climbs giant, sheer walls (such as Half Dome and El Capitan) without using ropes or protection. It's called "free-solo," and it's the most dangerous kind of climbing. Photographed extensively by Jimmy Chin, fawned over by Lara Logan in a 60 Minutes special, and subject of an award-winning Peter Mortimer documentary — Honnold is the poster boy of The North Face, the rock star of Yosemite dirtbags, and the doe-eyed heartthrob to even the most callused climbers.

Last week, Honnold added yet another seemingly impossible achievement to his free-solo climbing resume, ascending 1,500-foot limestone wall of El Sendero Luminoso in El Potrero, Mexico. And though Alex "No Big Deal" Honnold might shrug it off as another awesome day of rock climbing, fellow Yosemite virtuoso Cedar Wright dubbed his effort, "one of the most cutting-edge, big-wall solos of all time." 

Understated triumphs, simplicity, and humility: This is not just Honnold the climber, but Honnold the global humanitarian. His nonprofit initiative, Honnold Foundation, strives for succinct solutions in providing green energy to gridless populations. The foundation's mission: "Helping people live better, simply."

We met up with Alex at a Sacramento climbing gym back in November, the day after Thanksgiving. Topics included: graduating from "full dirtbag" to only "kind of dirtbag," planning his skyscraper climb in Taipei, his nonprofit foundation, and the surprising backstory behind an iconic photo.

In recent news, you've settled on climbing one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, Taipei 101, in Taiwan. When will you get to climb this behemoth? 

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The Best Foods for Swift Winter Treks

food for energy on the trailOne of the most obvious challenges to winter backpacking is keeping warm. But when it comes to staying toasty in the backcountry, top-dollar down jackets and wool socks can only do so much. The key to resisting the cold while trekking through snowy backcountry this winter depends just as much on the food you eat as the gear you wear. Here are our tips for planning, packing, and preparing meals that will fuel your body's furnace, all while keeping your pack light. 

Plan Ahead 

You may need a scale for this step. For every day of trekking, be sure to pack two pounds of food. Keep in mind this ratio for daily meals: 50% carbohydrates, 25% proteins and 25% fats. Fats, which carry twice as many calories per gram than protein and carbs, warm the body particularly well in snow conditions since fats take longer to be digested.

Cold and Ready 

On day hikes, feel free to pack sandwiches, fruits, and veggies. However, on treks lasting more than a day or two, an Italian sub from the grocery store deli can only get you so far. Pack foods that are durable and require little to no cooking: hard breads like baguettes, extra-sharp cheddar (stays fresh in winter temps), jerky, almonds, Granny Smith apples, muesli, ready-to-eat fish, dehydrated mashed potatoes, and a squeeze bottle of olive oil -- to name a few. For more packable food ideas, check out our list of foods for active lifestyles.  

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No Resort Necessary: 6 Wild Winter Adventures

Snowkiter jumping with a snowboardWith winter well underway, cold weather sports are kicking into high gear, and many people are prepping themselves and their equipment for the slopes. However, if ski lift lines and rental fees are starting feel a little stale, shake up your normal winter sports routine with one of these unusual snow season adventures: 

1. Snow kiting: Though challenging to do, snow kiting is pretty much what it sounds like: participants strap on skis or snowboards, hold on tight to a foil or inflatable kite, and fly across snow or ice. Like most snow sports, snow kiting requires a bit of a learning curve. Beginners can learn the basics at outdoor sports schools all over the country. 

2. Wolf Watching in Yellowstone: Though park-approved guides offer wildlife watching excursions year-round, winter is one of the best seasons to track wolves in Yellowstone. Interested parties can arrange custom one- and two-day trips with an experienced wildlife biologist, or join the group at organized catered retreats

3. Ski Biking: Like snow kiting, ski biking has a simple premise and complicated execution. A number of U.S. resorts are now open to those who hit the slopes on bicycles sporting skis instead of wheels. In Colorado, Winter Park Resort even offers guided night ski biking trips. Though many basic maneuvers will be familiar to those who've skied or ridden bicycles, beginners should think about taking a class or two before braving the mountain. Before forgoing lessons entirely, think for a moment about how you might take your bicycle on a ski lift, and then evaluate your confidence level. That being said, some enthusiasts swear it's just like riding a bike.

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A Chilly Meteor Shower and the King of the Planets

January 2014 startrails Peter Michaud (Gemini Observatory), AURA, NSFVenus has been a brilliant point of light in the west after sunset for a few months, but in January it disappears on its way to becoming a morning object. Say good-bye to it on January 2 when the crescent moon floats just above Venus before it joins the sun.

Jupiter will be the planet to watch in January, shining at magnitude -2.7 in the constellation Gemini. Jupiter reaches opposition on January 5, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise. On this date, use a telescope to see the volcanic moon Io emerge from behind Jupiter. The other three Galilean moons are already stretched out in a line on the opposite side of the giant planet, from Europa to Ganymede to Callisto.

On January 14, the moon and Jupiter come within about five degrees of each other. The moon will reach full phase the next night. January’s full moon, the Wolf Moon, occurs at 8:52 pm PST on January 15, just three hours after apogee, when the moon is farthest from Earth in its orbit. Therefore, January’s full moon is the smallest of the year.

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America’s 10 Best Bird Day Celebrations

National Bird Day 2014You thought the holiday season was over, didn’t you? But we haven’t observed National Bird Day yet! Every year on January 5, avid bird lovers celebrate their passion for these flightful beings in events held throughout the U.S. We know, there’s a lot of pressure to have big plans for Bird Day and perhaps all you want to do is sit around and watch bird-related movies (if so, check out the 10th item on our list for an event that won't require you to leave the couch). However, if you find yourself itching to get out of the house for the festivities, we’ve searched tirelessly to find 10 of the best Bird Day events from across the country.

Las Vegas, Nevada: Children in grades K-5 (and their bird-fanatic parents) are invited to visit the Sahara West Public Library’s National Bird Day event. From 3:30 to 4:30 pm on Sunday, January 5, kids can gather for stories, bird-watching, games, and crafts, all devoted to our friends in the sky.

Kent City, Michigan: The Howard Christensen Nature Center is also celebrating Bird Day this year. On Saturday, January 4, families will have the chance to go on a bird count hike and make festive birdseed creations from 1 to 3 pm.

Memphis, Tennessee: On January 4, starting at 11:30 am, anyone who will be in or near Memphis should head over to the Children’s Museum of Memphis for their Bird Day celebration. People of all ages are encouraged to talk about different bird species and even make their own little bird to take home as a souvenir.

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Q&A: Could a Radioactive Plume Impact the U.S.?

Henrieta Dulaiova on a cruise to collect samples for her studies on the geochemistry of the oceanIn 2014, a plume of ocean-borne radiation, originating from the Fukushima meltdown, will hit the west coast of the U.S. Initial sources warned that this could be an extremely dangerous concentration of radionuclides, but recent research and new sources have since said there is nothing to fear.

One of the researchers trying to set the record straight is Henrieta Dulaiova, an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii’s department of geology and geophysics. Dulaiova holds a Ph.D. in Chemical Oceanography and a Master of Sciences in Nuclear Chemistry and has been studying the ocean-borne radiation from Fukushima since the disaster began in 2011.

We spoke with Dulaiova over the phone about her research, being accused of working for the government, how much Americans should worry, and background radiation levels.

We asked a person on the bus what he would want to know about a plume of ocean-borne radiation hitting the West Coast. He said, “How long do I have to live?” Can you answer that question?

Honestly [laughs], there aren’t negative health effects that he can expect. The radiation will not get on the land. The questions I get most often in Hawaii are whether swimming or surfing in the ocean will be safe, which they are. He should be fine, which is why we wanted to dispute the initial claims that said otherwise.

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