The March Skies

There are two full moons during March, one on March 1st and another on March 31st. Full moons occur when Earth is located directly between the sun and the moon, allowing the moon to appear fully illuminated from Earth’s perspective. Courtesy the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

— Marie Curie

As the month of March opens, the planet Mercury can be seen very close to much brighter Venus, low in the western sky soon after sunset. These two planets can be viewed together in a single field of view with binoculars. Mercury continues to rise higher in the sky each evening until the end of the second week, when it begins to sink lower in the sky and soon fades into the solar glare.

Bright Venus hugs the western horizon soon after sunset in early March. It slowly becomes a little higher and much easier to see as the month progresses. Its magnitude is currently -3.9, so it’s really hard to miss. With an average surface temperature of 867 degrees F, this is the hottest planet in the solar system.

Mars appears in the southern predawn sky. Its reddish color will continue to brighten as it approaches Earth. In late July and early August, Mars will pass unusually close to Earth, allowing great views of the Red Planet through amateur telescopes. This will be the best appearance of Mars in 15 years.

M51 (the Whirlpool Galaxy) in the constellation Canes Venatici is a perfect target for amateur telescopes on clear spring evenings. This is one of the best examples of a face-on spiral galaxy in the Northern Hemisphere. Three supernovae have been discovered in this galaxy. Coutesy NASA, Hubble Space Telescope

Jupiter rises in the east during the middle of the night and is fairly high in the southern sky just before dawn. Even small amateur telescopes will reveal the spectacular dark and light cloud belts that encircle the Jovian globe. Because Jupiter spins so fast on its axis, a day on this huge planet lasts only 9 hours and 55 minutes.

Saturn and its beautiful ring system appear in the south-southeast predawn sky. It rises higher each day throughout the month as it moves closer and closer to Mars. These two planets begin March nearly 17 degrees apart but are less than 2 degrees apart at the end of the month. A telescope will reveal the globular star cluster M22 just below Mars.

The planet Uranus has a very close conjunction with brilliant Venus on the evening of March 28th, slightly above the western horizon soon after sunset. At least a medium size amateur telescope will be needed to spot faint Uranus, just above and to the right of Venus.

Neptune is not visible this month because it is behind the sun in relation to Earth. It will reappear in our night sky in late April.

The Spring Equinox falls on Tuesday, March 20 at 12:15 p.m. At this moment the sun crosses the celestial equator on its way north along the ecliptic. Worldwide, days and nights are nearly the same length. This marks the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere and the first day of autumn in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Orion Nebula (M42) can be spotted with the unaided eye but the view is greatly enhanced in binoculars or an amateur telescope. This turbulent region of swirling gas and dust clouds is a crucible of new star formation that acts like a star nursery. This image was taken in infrared wavelengths. Courtesy ESO, VLT, HAWK-I

Daylight Saving Time goes into effect at 2 a.m. on March 11.

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 www.martzobservatory.org.

The globular cluster M22 can be seen in the predawn sky this month near the tip of the teapot in the constellation Sagittarius. This is one of the brightest globular clusters in the night sky. Courtesy NASA, Hubble Space Telescope

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