March 2012 features all five visible planets, visible at convenient evening hours!
Venus continues to appear higher and higher in the sky each night, outshining everything but the Sun and the Moon. Look for it in the west at dusk. It is also still approaching Jupiter each night as March begins. On the first few nights of March, Venus is just over 10 degrees below Jupiter in the west. However, Venus continues to close that gap until March 13, Venus and Jupiter are side by side, with Venus on the right. After that, Venus pulls away, appearing higher than Jupiter in the west at dusk. Jupiter outshines everything in our sky except the Sun, the Moon, and Venus. Venus and Jupiter thus make a spectacular pair in the west this month.
Mars has joined Jupiter and Venus as an evening object. Face east at dusk and look for the brightest point of light in that direction. Although not as bright as Venus or Jupiter, Mars has brightened enough to rival Sirius, the brightest star we ever see at night. On March 3, Earth passes between Mars and the Sun, putting Mars in our sky literally all night long (an alignment called opposition).
Mercury is ordinarily too close to the Sun to observe; only rarely is it far enough from the Sun to be still up after sundown. Early March 2012 is one of those rare times, however. During the first two weeks of March, look for Mercury low in the west at dusk, between Venus and the point of sunset. Mercury is highest in the sky on March 5 and gets a little harder to see each day after that.
Saturn becomes a late evening object this month. Look in the south southeast beginning at about 10:00 pm on March 1, and by 8:40 (just after twilight ends) on March 31. Saturn is near the star Spica. (From the Big Dipper’s handle, arc to Arcturus and speed on to Spica).
Brilliant winter stars continue to dominate the southern sky at dusk. Orion, the Hunter, is almost due south. His two dogs, represented by Sirius and Procyon, are to his left. Above Orion is Taurus, the Bull with Aldebaran as its eye. Gemini, the Twins, are to Orion’s upper left. Leo, the Lion, is rising in the east.
Below Sirius, just above the southern horizon, is a star second only to Sirius in brightness. This is Canopus, which marks the keel (bottom) of the legendary ship Argo Navis. Canopus is so far south, in fact, that most Americans never see it. From the Gulf Coast, however, Canopus does rise. February and March are the best months to see it at dusk.
Moon Phases in March 2012:
Full March 8, 3:41 am
Last Quarter March 14, 8:26 pm
New March 22, 9:38 am
1st Quarter March 30, 2:41 pm
At 12:13 am on Tuesday, March 20, the Sun is directly overhead at the equator. This, then, is the vernal (spring) equinox, marking the official beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, summer turns to fall.
Visit www.hmns.org for the latest planetarium schedule.
On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer. If you’re there, listen for my announcement.