All five bright planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, make an appearance in the night sky this month. Venus lies high and bright above the western horizon after sunset and reaches its furthest extent from the Sun. It’s so high, this ‘evening star’ sets well after midnight. Mercury makes its best appearance of the year for southern observers in the morning sky, while Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn find themselves gathered in the same small patch of sky in the southeast before dawn. And the prominent constellations Orion, Taurus, and Canis Major all move westward as March progresses, inviting a last chance at a little deep-sky observing with binoculars or a telescope. Here’s what to see in the night sky this month…
1 March 2020. While Venus dominates the western evening sky this month, there’s more planetary action in the southeastern pre-dawn sky where Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter linger just east of the Teapot-shaped constellation Sagittarius. Today the three planets lie in a line about 20o long. From east to west are Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars. Jupiter is by far the brightest of the three. Northern-hemisphere observers need a good view of the southeastern horizon to see these planets, while southern-hemisphere observers see them rising in the east at a higher elevation.
2 March. First Quarter Moon, 19:57 UT
4 March. The waxing gibbous Moon lies just over a degree south of the open star cluster M35 in the constellation Gemini.
6 March. The brightening Moon passes about a degree north of another open star cluster, the Beehive (M44) in the constellation Cancer.
8 March. In North America, the clocks move forward (and an hour of sleep disappears) as Daylight Savings Time begins.
9 March. Full Moon, 17:48 UT. This is the largest Full Moon of 2020, appearing about 7% larger than average.
9 March. The planet Uranus is just 2o south of much brighter Venus. See the two planets with binoculars, or even better, with a small telescope.
11-22 March. Look for the zodiacal light in the west well after sunset. Very dark sky is a must. This tall, faint pyramid of white light, which slopes to the left towards the Pleiades and Hyades, is simply sunlight scattered off fine dust particles in the plane of the solar system. It’s sometimes called the ‘false dawn’ or the ‘false morning’.
16 March. Last Quarter Moon, 9:34 UT.
18 March. Look in the southeastern/eastern pre-dawn sky to see the waning crescent Moon pass the planet Mars by less than a degree. Mars is not far from the much brighter planet Jupiter as well. Of the three early-morning planets, Mars is the speediest this month. It begins March as the westernmost of the three, then moves quickly east, passing Jupiter on March 20 and reaching Saturn by month’s end when it gets close enough to Earth to rival Saturn in brightness.
19 March. Saturn lies just 2o north of the waning crescent Moon in the pre-dawn sky.
20 March. Mars passes about 0.8o south of much brighter Jupiter in the southeastern pre-dawn sky. The pair is visible in the same field of view of a telescope at low magnification. Mars is about six times smaller in apparent size than Jupiter.
24 March. New Moon, 9:28 UT
24 March. Mercury reaches greatest western elongation 28o from the Sun. The planet makes its best appearance of the year for southern-hemisphere observers in the eastern sky before dawn as it shines at magnitude +0.3 (see image above).
24 March. Venus reaches greatest eastern elongation 46o from the Sun. For northern observers, the planet towers above the western horizon after sunset, while observers in the south still get a respectable view of the planet lower over the horizon. Venus is so far above the horizon in the north that it sets after midnight. It’s about half lit today and about 25” across as it reaches a spectacular magnitude -4.5. The planet is on its way to a remarkable conjunction with the Pleiades on the night of April 3-4.
31 March. Mars and Saturn lie less than a degree apart in the southeastern pre-dawn sky.