The Skies of March
March night skies this year allow opportunity to see several bright planets, particularly Jupiter, Mars and Saturn, along with several examples of bright colourful stars peppering the summer Milky Way. These bright stars are now moving further towards the west, with the stars of Autumn starting to reappear in the east.
Bright stars for the month include orange Aldebaran, Red Betelgeuse, Blue-white Rigel, the white stars Procyon, Sirius and Canopus, and blue white Achenar. Yellow Alpha Centauri is rising once again low in the south east.
Chart (9pm on the 15th March) produced using the Stellarium software package
The Planets in March: Jupiter, Mars and Saturn
There are three of the Solar System’s bright planets easily visible in our skies this month; Jupiter, Saturn and (the upcoming highlight for April) the planet Mars.
Jupiter was at its best for 2014 in early January and continues to shine as a bright yellowish ‘star’ towards the north in the constellation Gemini. It is unmistakable and easily identified using the map for the month. Small telescopes will show Jupiter’s disk and cloud bands as described in detail last month, as well as four of it’s moons. Jupiter will continue to be visible in our evening skies for a few more months before it passes behind the Sun as seen from Earth.
The planet Mars is becoming easier to see later in the evening. To see Mars, look out for a bright red ‘star’ rising low in the east at around 10pm. The red colour is unmistakable, and as it presents a tiny disk rather than a star-like point, Mars (as for the other planets) doesn’t twinkle. The Red Planet will be at its best for the year next month, when it shall be described in more detail.
Incidentally the month of March itself was named after Mars, and was the first month of the earliest Roman calendar.
As Mars is further away from the Sun than the Earth, a year (the length of time it takes for planet to orbit around the Sun once) takes longer to happen; in Mars’ case it takes just under two Earth-years. We have to wait a little longer than that between the times when we can see it clearly. Mars is the most Earth-like of all the other planets, take this opportunity to go out and see it for yourself!
Saturn is the third planet to see this month, rising before midnight in the constellation Libra. Saturn looks to the eye like a fairly bright yellowish star, but a small telescope reveals the planet’s magnificent system of rings, along with it’s brightest moon, Titan. Saturn will be at its best for the year in May.
As Mars and Saturn rise in the east close to midnight, the map for the month does not show them, as it represents the sky at 9pm in the middle of the month.
Early risers can also catch the planets Mercury and Venus, both shining in the constellation Capricorn and rising a couple of hours before the Sun. Venus is unmistakably bright, and Mercury is a similar colour although fainter. As mentioned before, look for two bright white ‘stars’ which do not appear to twinkle.
The Moon is new on the 2nd March, Full on the 17th, and at first quarter (half) phase on the 9th. Have a look through a pair of binoculars on the 9th, the details of the lunar mountains and craters are very easy to see.
Featured photo credit ESO/T. Preibisch