Northern Sky: March 14 – 27
The outer planets have all arrived on stage, and in middle and late March they perform the first act of their big morning show. On Sunday, the 15th, look to the southeast for brilliant Jupiter, then just to the west for a little reddish dot. That, of course, is Mars. East of Jupiter and lower in the sky is Saturn, which is following Jupiter as it approaches Mars. On Wednesday, the 18th, Jupiter will have moved noticeably closer to Mars and a waning, but hefty, crescent moon will be hanging right below them. The next morning, Thursday, the 19th, Jupiter and Mars are even closer and a slightly thinner moon joins all three planets when it rises at 5:26 a.m. On the 20th, Jupiter passes a mere 0.7 degrees—slightly more than a moon width—above Mars. And the moon rises at 6 a.m.
So if you’re up, consider going outside by 6 a.m. on any of those days—the 18th through the 20th. You’ll see three planets, two of them in the process of passing each other, and maybe a moonrise, too. All in a dark sky. That doesn’t happen every day.
As we near the end of the month, Saturn closes in on Mars. On the morning of Saturday, the 28th, the ringed planet will be at about the same height as the red planet, getting ready for the second planetary pass in less than two weeks. By then, Jupiter will have removed itself a respectful distance to the west.
In the evening sky, another approach is in progress. The Pleiades star cluster and Venus are moving closer together as Earth’s orbital motion drops the Pleiades down toward the sunset horizon and Venus’ orbit carries it higher. Venus is unmistakably bright. The Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, are a slightly blurry bunch a little west of and lower than the bright star Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, the bull. On Saturday, March 14th, the Pleiades will be high above Venus. On the 27th, the star cluster will be closer to Venus than to Aldebaran. Make sure your binoculars are in good working order as Venus and the Pleiades get ready to meet in the first few days of April. And also, just enjoy Venus. From now until well into April, it’s visible for a good three and a half hours after sunset.
East of Aldebaran, the hourglass form of Orion is tilting to the west as it begins its annual exit from the evening sky. We’re also getting into the last few weeks when Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, is high enough for us to enjoy its full radiance; look for it low in the south-southwest at nightfall.
High in the southeast, Leo, the lion, is prancing into view. Leo is a two-part constellation. Its western section is the Sickle, a backward question mark of stars whose point is the bright star Regulus, the lion’s heart. East of the Sickle is a triangle of stars marking the lion’s hindquarters and tail. Leo follows the winter constellations across the sky and makes a very recognizable harbinger of spring.
And speaking of spring, it arrives on the 19th, at 10:50 p.m. At that moment the sun crosses the equator and enters the northern sky, and an observer in space would see Earth lighted from pole to pole. Also, since the fall equinox it’s been the case that as you traveled northward, the days got shorter. At the spring equinox that reverses, and the days get longer as you head north, all the way to the North Pole, which now has, officially, 24-hour daylight for the next six months.