By David Ward
As usual, lots of things are happening up there this month. Here are some of the highlights.
All of the bright planets are visible in their glory. At dusk, Jupiter is high overhead. It has been hanging out in the constellation Gemini, the twins, all winter, and it is the brightest object in the evening sky right now other than the moon. If you have a small telescope, you will enjoy the dance of Jupiter’s four brightest moons changing positions every night. On March 23, two of those moons will cast their shadows on Jupiter from 7 to 7:30 p.m. You will need a telescope to see that event.
The planet Mars, which most of the time is not too exciting, is at its peak this month. Earth is hurtling towards a close encounter with the red planet in early April and this will be the best time for viewing it in seven years.
Watch Mars brighten dramatically as March progresses. Its distinctive red color will become even more pronounced. Mars rises several hours after sunset in early March, but by the end of the month it will clear the eastern horizon during the evening twilight.
If you have a small telescope, look for the north polar ice cap which should be fairly easy to see. If you are into such things, watch that polar ice cap shrink during the next month as summer in the northern hemisphere of Mars melts it away. The bright star just below the red planet is Spica in the constellation Virgo.
The planet Saturn rises two hours after Mars. We are approaching a close encounter with the ringed planet in early May and it too will appear brighter as spring progresses. A small telescope will reveal its magnificent rings and its largest moon, Titan.
The planet Venus is the brightest object in the sky at dawn and if you are lucky you might catch a glimpse of Mercury to the lower left of Venus low in the east just before sunrise.
March is a great time to view the seldom seen Zodiacal Light. Look for it after mid-month when the moon’s glow does not interfere. Get away from distracting lights and look for a broad pyramid of light climbing high into the sky from the west just after the evening twilight has faded. If you do manage to see this rather obscure phenomenon, you are looking at trillions of dust particles caught in the plane of our solar system by the sun’s gravity.
Watch for a beautiful crescent moon low in the west just after sunset for a few evenings starting March 2 or 3 and again low in the east at dawn with Venus on March 27.
There has been a lot of scary talk lately about asteroids crashing into Earth and wiping out humanity or at least causing us a lot of trouble. If you happen to be in New York City on the nights of March 19 and 20, you will be able to witness an amazing and rare event. A tiny asteroid known as 163 Erigone will pass right in front of a bright star, causing it to wink out for 14 seconds. This event is called an occultation and nothing quite like it has happened in our lifetimes.
Also on March 20, Earth reaches that point in its orbit known as the vernal equinox, one of two days in the year when the days and nights are of equal lengths and the sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west.
Get ready for a total eclipse of the moon in April, the first one we have had in a while. More about that next time.