Star Trak: March 2014
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Everyone in the Northern Hemisphere will have fine views of the major planets in March.
Brilliant white Jupiter will be nearly overhead as darkness falls at the beginning of the month, and it will still be almost that high in the south at month’s end. The giant planet will dominate the background stars of the constellation Gemini the Twins.
Mars will more than double in brightness during March as it approaches opposition in April. Every couple of years the Red Planet draws the attention of even casual observers, and that time has arrived. It will rise around 9:30 p.m. local time early in the month and during bright evening twilight by month’s end. The view through a telescope will improve as the night passes and Mars climbs higher in the southeast. It will reach its peak at midmonth around 3 a.m. when it will be halfway between the southern horizon and straight overhead. The glowing red-orange object will be a few degrees north of the bright blue-white star Spica in the constellation Virgo the Maiden.
Saturn will rise before midnight local time all month and glow bright yellow in the southeast among the stars of the constellation Libra the Balance. It will be highest two to three hours before sunrise, offering the best telescopic views. Its rings will be tilted 23 degrees to our line of sight during March.
Saturn has more than 60 moons, and the largest one, the planet-sized Titan, can be seen with any telescope. Titan will be due south of Saturn on March 6 and 22, and due north on March 15 and 31. The latest news and images from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn are available online.
Venus and Mercury will shine low in the east at dawn in March. Venus will be bright and easy to locate, while Mercury will be far to its lower left (north) and difficult to see. For skywatchers at mid-northern latitudes, the ecliptic makes a shallow angle with the eastern horizon before dawn in early spring, so both planets will appear very low. Mercury will probably be visible only through binoculars and telescopes a half hour before sunrise.
The sun will cross the celestial equator (an extension of Earth's equator onto the sky) on March 20 at 12:57 p.m. EDT (16:57 Universal Time) heading north. This will mark the start of spring in the Northern Hemisphere and autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. For the next six months in the Northern Hemisphere, the days will be longer than the nights.
Day and night are not precisely the same length at the time of the equinox. That happens on different dates for different latitudes. At higher latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere, the date of equal day and night occurs before the March equinox. In the Southern Hemisphere, this happens after the March equinox. Information about the exact time of the equinox at different places on Earth's surface is provided by the U.S. Naval Observatory.
If you live in an area that is dark enough for you to see the Milky Way sprawling across the night sky, you also have a chance of seeing the interplanetary dust in the plane of our solar system. As darkness falls, look for a faint pyramid of light spreading upward from the western horizon over a large area of the sky. This is the zodiacal light, which is sunlight reflected from trillions of dust particles left behind in space by comets and asteroids that orbit the sun in the same plane as the planets. Observers at mid-northern latitudes may be able to see the zodiacal light after evening twilight ends from March 18 to 31. Sky and Telescope provides an example.
The moon will be new on March 1, at first quarter on March 8, full on March 16, at third quarter on March 24 and new again on March 30.