Last modified: Wednesday, March 6, 2002
Venus returns to the evening sky
March will be a time to watch advance preparations for a grand meeting of all five of the planets that can be seen with the unaided eye, which will happen in late April and early May. Skywatchers can see the unusual event begin to take shape in the southwest after sunset this month.
Mars has been waiting patiently in the southwest while Jupiter and Saturn majestically drifted westward across the southern sky. Mars will still be there during March, faint compared with much larger Jupiter and Saturn, and the gaps between the three will begin to close noticeably as they slowly move westward toward an encounter with the other two planets in their "club," Venus and Mercury.
Jupiter, the largest planet and second only to Venus in brightness, is nearing the end of its winter-long domination of the night sky. Jupiter will still be highly visible, but it will yield in brilliance to Venus as the weeks pass. During March, Jupiter will be the first "star" to appear high in the south as the evening sky darkens.
Below and to the right (west) of Jupiter will be yellow Saturn, much less bright but still conspicuous. Saturn's rings will be an especially fine sight in a telescope during March. The distance between the two planets will begin to narrow as the month progresses.
The Pleiades star cluster will be to the right (west) of Saturn, balanced by the bright orange star Aldebaran close by on Saturn's left (south). The constellation Orion the Hunter will be farther to the left (south), easy to identify by the line of three bright stars that marks the hunter's belt.
Following the line between Jupiter and Saturn downward toward the western horizon will lead to Mars, the same color as Aldebaran and slightly fainter.
Continuing even farther on this line will eventually reveal Venus just above the western horizon. Early in March this brilliant white object will be visible a half hour after sunset and will set soon afterward, but it will appear higher each night. By month's end it will be easy to locate, setting an hour and a half after the sun. Venus will be a beautiful "evening star" for the next few months.
Mercury will be too far south for observers in the Northern Hemisphere during March, but it will be easily visible above the eastern horizon before dawn for those in the Southern Hemisphere.
The sun will cross the celestial equator (an extension of Earth's equator onto the sky) on March 20 at 2:16 p.m. EST (19:16 Universal Time) heading north. The March equinox marks 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. Information about exactly when the equinox happens at different places on Earth's surface is provided at http://aa.usno.navy.mil/faq/docs/equinoxes.html.
The moon will pass in front of (occult) Saturn on March 20 for viewers in parts of the Middle East, Asia and Alaska. It will occult Jupiter on March 22 as seen from northern Canada, Greenland and Iceland. In this interesting event, a bright star or planet disappears behind the moon and then pops out again a few minutes later. Information about where and when to watch is available at http://www.lunar-occultations.com/iota/planets2002/planets2002.htm.
The moon will be at last quarter on March 6, new on March 14, at first quarter on March 22 and full on March 28.