March 2019 Sky-Watch

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Spring arrives in the Northern Hemisphere on March 20th at 5:58 pm EDT, as we will have shifted to Daylight Savings Time on March 10th, at 2:00 am. Astronomically, spring arrives with the Vernal (Spring) Equinox. This is when the Sun moving along it’s “apparent” path in the sky, known as the Ecliptic, crosses the Celestial Equator. Of course, this perceived motion of the Sun is really caused by the Earth orbiting the Sun. We cannot “feel” this motion, but we can see the result of it by watching the Sun appear to move annually.

The Ecliptic gets its name because only when the Moon, orbiting Earth, lines up right on the orbital plane of the Earth and Sun, can eclipses occur. We can track the path of the Ecliptic in the sky because it is marked by the 12 Zodiac constellations.

From now until June 21st the Sun will appear to be higher in the sky each day at noon and the weather in the northern hemisphere will warm gradually. Summer arrives in June with the Sun at its highest point in the southern sky for the year. So we can start looking forward to warm weather.

Meanwhile, the spring equinox is ushered in with a Full Moon occurring just 4 hours (9:43 pm) on March 20th EDT.

March continues the early morning planet show that start to impress us in February. Looking southeast, Jupiter rises by 2:30 am on March 1st and by 1:30 pm on the 31st. The waning gibbous Moon will appear just a few degrees away from Jupiter on the morning of March 27th, and will be Jupiter’s only real competition for brightness, as the giant planet brightens from –2.0 to –2.2 during the month. When twilight begins to show in the eastern sky, Jupiter will be 25 degrees above the horizon and will give telescope viewers a clear shot.

Saturn rises around 5:30 am EDT among the stars of Sagittarius and is brighter than all of its stars. On March 29th the waning crescent Moon will be seen just to the lower left of the ringed planet. Venus rises right around the same time as Saturn but easily outshines it and Jupiter. At magnitude –4.1, Venus will fade only to –3.9 by the end of the month. On the morning of March 13th look for all three planets in the southeastern sky, Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus about evenly spaced between themselves, about 45 minutes before sunrise. (Venus lowest and brightest; Saturn above and right; and Jupiter above and right of Saturn.

We can still catch a glimpse of Mercury in the first week of March (March 1 to 6) looking to the western horizon some 8 degrees up and 45 minutes after sunset. Binoculars will help pick it out in the twilight. Mars orbital motion now, relative to ours, keeps it moving eastward against the starry background, but from our vantage point on Earth, it will remain mostly as a fixed sight in our evening skies (in the southwest), not setting until around 11:30. Bright enough to be easily seen with the unaided eye, and even better in binoculars, Mars does not reveal surface details even through telescopes now. It is just too far away.

However, on the night of March 23rd a binocular view of Mars will show it in the same field of view with the Pleiades star cluster (M 45). Mars will remain in that vicinity of the sky until about April 4th. It is worth taking a look!

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