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Hal Kibbey

Last modified: Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Star Trak: March 2013

Feb. 27, 2013

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- At the beginning of March, gleaming white Jupiter will be more than half way up the western sky at dusk, and it will still be almost that high at month's end. During March the giant planet will pass north of the orange star Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus the Bull. Binoculars will give a fine view of the Hyades and Pleiades star clusters on either side of Jupiter.

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 in the south during the hours after midnight, offering the best telescopic views. The tilt of its rings to our line of sight will narrow slightly during March but will still be about 19 degrees.


Photo courtesy of NASA


Print-Quality Photo

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 the nights of March 4 and 20, and due north on March 12 and 28. Visit NASA's Cassini website for the latest news and images from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn.

Mercury will pass between Earth and the sun March 4, emerging into the morning sky late in the month. For skywatchers at mid-northern latitudes, the planet will appear very low in the east-southeast in bright morning twilight when it reaches greatest elongation March 31. It will probably be visible only through binoculars and telescopes a half hour before sunrise.

Venus and Mars will pass behind the sun during March, too close to the solar glare to be seen in our sky.


Comet Pan-STARRS C/2011 L4 is expected to become visible to the naked eye in the Northern Hemisphere during March. This is a new comet making its first visit to the inner solar system, so predictions about its brightness are uncertain. The comet is currently visible in the Southern Hemisphere, and it will be closest to Earth on March 5. After about March 7, it will appear above the western horizon.

Pick a dark spot away from streetlights and look in the direction of sunset right after the sun has gone down. The bright twilight will make the comet much harder to see, and you may need binoculars. For mid-northern latitudes, the comet should be at its best from about March 8 to 20, especially March 12 to 17.

On March 9 it will be closest to the sun (at perihelion), when it should be most brilliant. At that time it will set an hour after the sun, so it should be visible from any location with an unobstructed western horizon. After perihelion the comet will fade quickly as it moves away from the sun. A computer simulation of how the comet may appear from March 5 through March 25 about 40 minutes after sunset at 40 degrees north latitude can be seen in this video.


The sun will cross the celestial equator (an extension of Earth's equator onto the sky) at 7:02 a.m. EDT (11:02 Universal Time) March 20 heading north. This will mark the start of spring in the Northern Hemisphere and fall 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 available online from the U.S. Naval Observatory.

Zodiacal light

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. Find an open area with no light pollution or moonlight. After sunset 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 microscopic debris left behind in space by comets and asteroids that orbit the sun in the same plane as the planets.

Moon phases

The moon will be at third quarter on March 4, new on March 11, at first quarter on March 19 and full on March 27.