The five brightest planets of our solar system remain visible in the night sky this month. Jupiter is nearly overhead at northern latitudes in the early evening hours and low over the northern horizon from the southern hemisphere. Mars brightens and grows in apparent size in March and by month’s end almost outshines every star in the sky. Saturn follows Mars over the southeast horizon later in the night, and Mercury and Venus emerge later in the month in the eastern sky before dawn.
As for the sights beyond our solar system, in the southern hemisphere the excellent star fields of the Milky Way from Canis Major through Puppis, Vela, Carina, and into Crux hold dozens of open star clusters and nebulae. Aim binoculars in this direction and you are bound to see something good. For northern observers, the bright stars of this long, hard winter remain above the southwestern horizon, while relatively star-poor constellations wheel into view overhead. Here you look out of the plane of the Milky Way and into intergalactic space. But there are a few attractive foreground objects here. One of my favorites is the famous Beehive Cluster, M44, in the constellation Cancer, an excellent open star cluster for binoculars. More about the Beehive Cluster here.
Here’s what’s going on in the night sky this month…
1 March. New Moon, 08:00 UT
6 Mar. Jupiter appears stationary near the star Mebsuta in the constellation Gemini and remains bright and well-placed for observing all month. The planet is about as far north as it gets and still shines at magnitude -2.2, far brighter than any star. It appears low on the northern horizon for observers in the southern hemisphere. If you haven’t got it yet, click here to download the free guide to observing Jupiter. This guide is an excerpt of the detailed course on backyard astronomy called The Art of Stargazing which will be available for a short time later this month.
7 Mar. First Quarter Moon, 13:27 UT
14 Mar. Mercury reaches greatest western elongation from the Sun and appears in the eastern sky just before sunrise.
16 Mar. Full Moon, 17:08 UT
17 Mar. The bright icy-white star Spica and brighter ochre-colored Mars form a tight triangle with a just-past-full Moon in the eastern sky after midnight. Mars will reach opposition on April 8. The planet rises a few hours after sunset at the beginning of March and just past sunset by month’s end. The planet grows in brightness throughout the month and reaches magnitude -1.3 on March 31. That’s almost as bright as Sirius. The disk of Mars grows to an apparent diameter of 15″ and will give up some surface detail with a telescope under steady sky. You will likely get the best views of Mars this month well after midnight when the planet rises above the thick and unsteady air near the horizon.
20 Mar. At 16:57 UT, spring mercifully begins in the northern hemisphere and autumn begins in the south as the Sun crosses the celestial equator moving north.
20 Mar. For a few seconds, the asteroid Erigone passes in front of Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo. The event is visible in a narrow band through eastern Ontario in Canada and New York state just after about 2 a.m. local time. This is a rare a fascinating event during which is bright star appears to “wink out” for 10-15 seconds. Detailed measurements by amateur stargazers of the occultation can give some idea of shape of the asteroid, and also perhaps the size of Regulus. More about this occultation at www.occultations.org/regulus2014
20-31 Mar. The zodiacal light is visible in mid-northern latitudes about 90 minutes after sunset. Look for this slanted pyramid of white light in the western sky. You need dark sky to see it. The zodiacal light is sunlight reflected from tiny dust grains in the plane of the solar system. More about the zodiacal light at this link…
21 Mar. Look for Saturn near the waning gibbous Moon in the constellation Libra after midnight near the southeastern horizon. Saturn brightens and grows a little during the month on the way to opposition in May.
22 Mar. Venus reaches greatest western elongation from the Sun. Both Venus and Mercury this month are low on the horizon in the northern hemisphere but much higher in the southern hemisphere (see image above).
24 Mar. Last Quarter Moon, 01:46 UT
27 Mar. Look for brilliant Venus near a slender crescent Moon in the eastern sky about an hour before sunrise.
30 March. New Moon Moon, 18:45 UT