The Night Sky This Month

March 2015

Spring “star stuff”

If nothing else this month, spring arrives for us beleaguered stargazers in eastern North America who have endured another absurdly cold winter. This month’s Full Moon is called the “Worm Moon” because the ground thaws and earthworms begin to do their business at this time of year. Though as March begins, in this part of the world, the worms are still under four feet of snow. But planets abound this month, with brilliant Jupiter still resplendent, Saturn rising in the pre-dawn sky, and Mars and Venus still visible in the western sky after sunset. The planet Uranus also makes an appearance early in the month less than a degree from Venus, so if you’ve never seen this distant ice giant, this is your chance. Here’s what to see in the night sky this month…

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2 March. The waxing gibbous Moon lies near the planet Jupiter. The big planet is nearly a month past opposition and slowly shrinking and growing dimmer, but it’s still a beautiful sight in a telescope all this month and next. The planet is far brighter than any star and appears high in the eastern sky after sunset (in the northeast as seen from the southern hemisphere). The planet shines at magnitude -2.5 and has an apparent diameter of 45″.

4 March. The planet Uranus passes less than half a degree southeast of the brilliant planet Venus. If you’ve never seen Uranus before, this is an excellent chance to spot this distant ice giant. Look for Venus after sunset, and use binoculars or small telescope to spot Uranus just below Venus. Uranus will appear about 0.1º below Venus in Europe and about 0.3º below Venus in North America. From the southern hemisphere, Uranus will appear a little less than 0.5º (the same as the diameter of the full Moon) to the upper right of Venus. Venus is about 10 full magnitudes brighter than Uranus (which works out to a factor of about 10,000). Venus now lies about 200 million kilometers from Earth, while Uranus is about 3 billion kilometers away.

Venus and Mars in the western sky after sunset on March 4, 2015. The planet Uranus (not shown) appears less than 1/2 a degree of Venus in binoculars or small telescope.

Venus and Mars in the western sky after sunset on March 4, 2015. The planet Uranus (not shown) appears less than 1/2 a degree of Venus in binoculars or small telescope.

5 March. Full Moon, 18:06 UT. (The “Worm Moon”). This will be the smallest apparent Full Moon of 2015.

12 March. The last-quarter Moon lies just a few degrees northeast of Saturn, and about eight degrees north of the red-orange star Antares. Look for the assembly in the eastern sky before dawn. Saturn rises around midnight this month and slowly grows brighter and larger. Its location favors observers in the southern hemisphere where the planet appears much higher in the sky.

Waning gibbous Moon, Saturn, and Antares as seen looking south before dawn on March 12, 2015.

Waning gibbous Moon, Saturn, and Antares as seen looking south before dawn on March 12, 2015.

13 March. Last-Quarter Moon, 17:48 UT

16 March. Though it has faded, Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) remains accessible with binoculars and small telescopes in dark sky. The comet passes within less than a degree of the star Ruchbah, one of the stars in the “W” of the constellation Cassiopeia. Sky and Telescope has a good map of the position of the comet at this link… 

20 March. New Moon, 9:36 UT

20 March. Spring begins, mercifully, in the northern hemisphere at 22:45 UT. Autumn begins in the southern hemisphere at the same time, as the Sun appears to cross the celestial equator moving north.

20 March. A total solar eclipse is visible in far northern Europe between Iceland and the United Kingdom and northward into the Norwegian Sea. This is not an easy eclipse to get to. But observers in much of northern Europe can see (with proper solar filters) a partial solar eclipse. Much of the United Kingdom will be able to see more than 80% totality. See the Wikipedia page for this eclipse for maps of where the eclipse can be seen.

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21-22 March. The slender waxing crescent Moon moves among the planets visible in the western sky after sunset. On the 21st, the Moon is close to the planet Mars, and both appear closer to the horizon than brilliant Venus. On the 22nd, the slightly thicker crescent Moon is closer to Venus.

Mars, Venus, and the crescent Moon as seen after sunset on March 22, 2015

Mars, Venus, and the crescent Moon as seen after sunset on March 22, 2015

24 March. The crescent Moon passes through the Hyades star cluster in the constellation Taurus. Observers in northwestern Canada and Alaska can see the Moon pass in front of Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus.

27 March. First-Quarter Moon, 7:43 UT