The March Skies

Approximately 1000 years ago, early astronomers in China detected a star that became so bright it could be seen during the daytime. Now, when modern astronomers look at that exact spot in the sky, they can observe a pulsing neutron star surrounded by the rapidly expanding gas cloud that made up the original star that went supernova. Courtesy NASA, STScI

Mercury emerges from behind the sun (in relation to Earth) and appears low in the west during evening twilight near the end of March. It will rise higher in the sky each night during the last week of the month. It shines at magnitude -1.2 and binoculars will help to locate it. A small telescope will reveal that Mercury’s disc is now about 85 % lit. Because of its close proximity to the sun, Mercury is not easily seen in Earth’s sky except during twilight.

During the first couple of weeks in March, Venus shines very brightly in the western evening twilight, becoming visible shortly after sunset. It then drops rapidly lower each day, disappearing into the solar glare in the third week of the month. Venus rotates in the opposite direction to the other planets, a feature known as retrograde rotation.

All through March, the much fainter, reddish glow of Mars appears higher in the western evening twilight than bright Venus. The Red Planet sets in the west about three hours after the sun.

Enormous Jupiter will dominate the March predawn sky, rising in the east during the mid-evening hours at the beginning of March. Only the moon and Venus appear brighter than Jupiter. For the best telescopic view of this giant planet, wait until the predawn hours, when it’s higher in the southwestern sky. Your views will be much sharper then because you’ll be looking through much less of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Saturn glows with a pale gold color in the predawn southern sky all month long. The rings are now tilting 26 degrees to our line of sight and they now extend above the planet’s north pole. This allows the planet’s shadow to fall on the western side of the rings, behind the planet. Saturn rotates on its axis very quickly and a full day there lasts only 10 hours and 14 minutes. However, it revolves around the sun very slowly. One year on Saturn lasts more than 29 Earth years.

The sun reaches the March equinox on March 20 at 6:29 a.m. EDT. This signals the beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere and the beginning of fall in the Southern Hemisphere. The Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun in June and away from the sun in December. The March equinox marks the beginning of the Northern Hemisphere’s tilt back toward the sun.

Editor’s note: This monthly guide to the stars is from the Marshall Martz Memorial Astronomical Association and The Post-Journal. For further information, contact the M.M.M.A.A. at martzobservatory.org.

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