The Sky in March 2009

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1.The Sun

The Sun is in the constellation of Aquarius at the start of March, moving into Pisces on the 12th. In mid-March, the sky is reasonably dark between about 7:30 pm and 5:00 am GMT. The Spring Equinox falls on Friday March 20th; the Sun crosses the celestial equator from south to north. On this date, the Sun rises just after 6 am and sets just after 6 pm. After this, the days are longer than the nights. ritish Summer Time begins on Sunday March 29th. Clocks should go one hour forward on Saturday night.

2. The Moon

The Moon was New on Wednesday February 25th. In the first few days of March, the crescent will be visible in the western sky after sunset.

First Quarter is at 07:46 on Wednesday March 4th, when it’s in the constellation of Taurus. Around this date it is rising in the north-east in the middle of the morning, it’s high in the south at sunset, and it doesn’t set in the north-west until well into the early hours of the next morning. Over the next week, as it grows from half-lit to a gibbous shape, it rises and sets a little later each day, and appears a little lower in the sky.

Full Moon is at 02:38 on Wednesday March 11th, in Leo. At this phase, the Moon is on the opposite side of the sky to the Sun; so it rises in the east at sunset, shines all through the night, and sets in the west at sunrise the following morning. Then, as it wanes to gibbous again, it rises later every evening, but still sets just after sunrise.

The Moon is at Last Quarter at 17:47 UT on Wednesday March 18th, in the far-south constellation of Sagittarius. Around this date it is very poorly placed for viewing: it comes up in the south-east only a few hours before sunrise. During the following week, as it wanes to a “crescent” shape, it can only be glimpsed briefly before sunrise; we’ll probably lose sight of it after Sunday 22nd.

New Moon occurs again on at 16:06 on Thursday March 26th. The new crescent Moon should be visible in the western sky after sunset, from Friday 27th onwards. The Moon will be at First Quarter again on Thursday April 2nd.

3. Mercury

Throughout March, Mercury is rising only minutes before the Sun; it’s at superior conjunction (almost directly behind the Sun) on March 31st. We’re very unlikely to see this elusive little planet this month.

4. Venus

Venus is now coming to the end of its splendid appearance as the “Evening Star”. Relative to the stars, it is tracing out a looped path in Pisces – moving north at first, then more rapidly south-westwards. At the start of March, it’s well up in the western sky at sunset, and doesn’t set till 9:30 pm. But every night it appears a little lower, and sets a little earlier.

The crescent Moon was a little way to the upper left of Venus on the evening of Saturday February 28th. When the Moon comes round to the same part of the sky a month later, on March 27th, it will be barely visible in the sunset; Venus, to the lower right, will not be visible at all.

Venus is at inferior conjunction (almost directly in front of the Sun) on March 27th. At the very end of the month it is just starting to appear in the morning sky. But it won’t look so spectacular as a “Morning Star”, because it won’t appear very high in the sky.

5. Mars

This month, Mars is still rising only a few minutes before sunrise. We won’t be getting good views of the “Red Planet” until after the summer.

6. Jupiter

Jupiter, like Mars, rises less than an hour before the Sun this month. In theory, we could look for it towards the end of March, very low in the south-east just before sunrise; but it won’t be easy to see. Again, we won’t get good views of this giant planet until after the summer.

7. Saturn

Saturn is very well placed for viewing this month. It’s at opposition to the Sun on March 8th; so it is rising as the Sun sets, it’s due south at midnight, and it doesn’t set until sunrise.

Relative to the stars, it’s moving very slowly north-westwards in Leo, well to the lower left of the bright star Regulus. But Saturn appears brighter than Regulus, and it shines with a steadier light. The famous rings around Saturn can only be seen in a telescope.

In the early evening of Tuesday March 10th, the Moon will appear to the lower right of Saturn, about 6 degrees away. As the night goes by, the Moon moves further left, but it remains below Saturn all night.

8. Meteors

On any clear night, we may see the occasional meteor or “shooting-star”, as tiny specks of inter-planetary d├ębris burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. At certain times of the year, the Earth travels through a cloud of this dust, and we get a meteor-shower.

There are no major meteor-showers in March, but we may see a handful of meteors from the Virginid shower, which is usually active during March and April; they appear to radiate outwards from the constellation of Virgo. Sporadic meteors, which don’t belong to any shower, may be seen on any night and in any direction.

9. Aurora Borealis

A display of the Aurora Borealis, or “Northern Lights”, is hard to predict in advance; it’s triggered by activity on the Sun, which may or may not interact with the Earth’s magnetic field.

It often begins as a faint greenish glow low on the northern horizon. This may brighten and rise higher in the sky, as an arc of green light; in a good display, the arc will develop vertical rays, perhaps of different colours, and may eventually converge into a “corona”.

Activity on the Sun follows a cycle of roughly 11 years, which is currently going through a prolonged minimum. However, even at minimum there are occasionally good auroral displays; and statistically, the aurora tends to be seen more often around the spring and autumn equinoxes. It’s always worth checking the northern sky, on any clear, dark night.

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