MARCH 2014 NIGHT SKY CALENDAR
Spring springs merrily along!
Well, according to the meteorologists, spring commenced on Saturday. Those sour-puss astronomers insist spring doesn't begin until the Vernal Equinox, which occurs on March 20th this year. So, by some reckoning, winter still trudges toward its eternal reward. By other accounts, spring is step dancing on winter's remains. We, being cheerfully craven, gladly accept both reckonings, as well as the resultant metaphysical dichotomy of this uneasy winter-spring juxtaposition.
We're transitioning between the splendid winter sky wall and the brilliant summer stars. Between them one finds the comparatively sparse stellar assemblage around Cancer, Hydra, Corvus and Crater. This stellar dearth results from our altered perspective: when we observe the "Winter Star Wall," including the Winter Hexagon, we're looking through the galactic plane. When we turn our attentions toward Hydra and its associated stars, we're observing away from the plane, where the stellar densities along our sightline is lower and the quantity of bright stars within our view correspondingly less.
SATURDAY, MARCH 1: NEW MOON
Yes, we will have two new moons this months. Did you know that the second new moon of a month is called "A magenta moon?" We have no idea why it is, either. The second full moon in one month is called a "blue moon." The origin of this term is similarly mysterious. The Moon's synodic period (phase cycle) is approximately 29.5 days, which is less than the duration any single month save February. Consequently, it is not uncommon to have two different phases in one month. The next new moon occurs on Sunday, March 30th.
MONDAY, MARCH 3: SATURN STATIONARY
This event excites us because Saturn is about to begin a retrograde loop. Most of the time, a planet moves eastward against the stars, known as "prograde motion." When Earth approaches a superior planet (such as Saturn), the planet's migration will appear to halt before it begins retrograde (westward) motion. This reversal is illusory, as the planet continues along its orbital path in the same direction. The only change is our perspective on the planet as it moves toward opposition - the passage of Earth between it and the Sun. Saturn reaches opposition on May 10th. Saturn's retrograde motion is a precursor to this opposition, which excites us simply because it will occur in May. (Saturn resumes prograde motion on July 21st)
THURSDAY, MARCH 6: JUPITER STATIONARY
How curious! Saturn begins its retrograde loop, while Jupiter is about to resume prograde motion. We passed between the Sun and Jupiter (Opposition) on January 5th. Now, Earth has progressed far enough around in its orbit so that Jupiter will appear to move in a prograde motion again. Interesting note: Remember "The Jupiter Diamond," consisting of Jupiter (north), Betelgeuse (west), Sirius (south) and Procyon (east.) Now that Jupiter's motion is eastward, the diamond pattern will become disrupted throughout the spring and summer. Observing this transfiguration will enable you to track Jupiter's motion.
SATURDAY, MARCH 8: FIRST QUARTER MOON
SUNDAY, MARCH 9: FRANKLIN'S REVENGE
Daylight Savings Time begins! Franklin apologists giddily refer to DST as "Summer Time." As its commencement occurs when the continent is still coated in permafrost, the euphemism is nothing more than a cruel irony.
MONDAY, MARCH 10: MOON 5.1 DEGREES SOUTH OF JUPITER (BRONZE EVENT!)
Though Jupiter's not as bright now as it was at year's beginning, it remains a prominent sight. Tonight, one will see Jupiter and the gibbous Moon high in the southern sky by 6:00 p.m. Seeing the Moon dangling amulet-like within the Jupiter diamond should be sufficient incentive to induce anyone to venture out for a glance.
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 12: SUN ENTERS PISCES
After lifting itself slowly out of Capricornus and then ascending sharply through Aquarius the Water bearer, the Sun finally moves into Pisces the Fish. We remember that the Sun occupies Pisces on the first day of spring, or the vernal equinox. The Sun's entrance into Pisces therefore occasions us an unbounded joy that will dissipate like fog when the next blizzard assaults our region. The Sun appears to move through thirteen constellations throughout the year. These constellations comprise the "ecliptic," or "zodiac." These constellations are PISCES THE FISH, Aries the Ram, Taurus the Bull, Gemini the Twins, Cancer the Crab, Leo the Lion, Virgo the Maiden, Libra the Scales, Scorpius the Scorpion, Ophiuchus the Serpent Charmer, Sagittarius the Archer, Capricornus the Seagoat, and Aquarius the Water Bearer. The Sun moves into Aries the Ram on April 19th.
FRIDAY, MARCH 14: MERCURY AT GREATEST WESTERN ELONGATION (27.5 degrees from the Sun)
When an inferior planet is at greatest western elongation, one will find it in the predawn eastern sky. Conversely, when a planet is at greatest eastern elongation, one will observe it in the western evening sky. Seek Mercury in the early morning sky. (More in the PLANET WATCH section.)
SATURDAY, MARCH 16: FULL MOON
Why can one so easily find one's way at night when the moon is full? Simply because the full moon is so extraordinarily bright. The full moon is nine times brighter than the quarter moon. Geometrically, one would think the full moon should be merely twice as bright a the quarter moon, as the illuminated portion of the former is twice that of the latter. However, the Moon reflects most of its light directly back along the incidental path. Earth passes through this reflected light stream when the moon is full, or at opposition. For this reason, the full moon is much brighter than the quarter moons.
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 19: MOON 3.1 DEGREES SSW OF MARS
We can tell that Mars is almost at opposition, as it approaches the Moon so soon after it is full. One will find Mars and the gibbous moon rising in the mid evening sky. They'll remain together throughout the remainder of the night. This moon-Mars appulse affords one the opportunity to observe Mars' crimson shading, which is all the most distinctive when compared to the Moon's white glow.
THURSDAY, MARCH 20: VERNAL EQUINOX (GOLD EVENT!!!)
How can one not award the gold to Spring's first day?! Astronomical winter has finally ended and spring begins! This transition from Hell's chambers to Heaven's pastures occurs precisely at 12:57 EDT. Astronomically, the Sun's apparent orbital path, the ecliptic, intersects the Celestial Equator. The Sun then ascends above the Celestial Equator and will remain north of it until the autumnal equinox.
FRIDAY, MARCH 21: MOON 0.25 DEGREES SSW OF SATURN (SILVER EVENT!!)
We'll see Saturn extremely close to the Moon tonight! Were we observers in the southern part of Africa, we'd witness an occultation - the passage of the Moon in front of Saturn. Though we're far away from this vantage point, we'll still enjoy the coupling of Saturn and the gibbous moon in the late evening and early morning.
SATURDAY, MARCH 22: VENUS AT GREATEST WESTERN ELONGATION (46.6 degrees from the Sun)
Remember what we said about Mercury's greatest western elongation? The same applies to Venus. When it is at greatest western elongation, Venus is high (comparatively) in the pre-dawn eastern sky. Venus is the brilliant morning beacon this month. (More on Venus in the Planet Watch section.)
MONDAY, MARCH 24: LAST QUARTER MOON
THURSDAY, MARCH 27: MOON 3.6 DEGREES NNW OF VENUS
Find the crescent moon and Venus together in the early morning sky! We didn't give this one a medal because both the Moon and Venus lurk low in the pre-dawn east. Besides, the Moon-Venus appulse generally receives one of the medals almost every month.
SATURDAY, MARCH 29: MOON 5.9 DEGREES NNW OF MERCURY
This coupling won't be easy to see. The Moon is almost new again. Both the Moon and Mercury lurk very low in the eastern sky as twilight brightens.
SUNDAY, MARCH 30: MOON NEW
Yes, we will have two new moons this months. Did you know that the second new moon of a month is called "A magenta moon?" We have no idea why it is, either. The second full moon in one month is called a "blue moon." The origin of this term is similarly mysterious. The Moon's synodic period (phase cycle) is approximately 29.5 days, which is less than the duration any single month save February. Consequently, it is not uncommon to have two different phases in one month. The previous new moon occurred on Saturday, March 1st.
MERCURY: Mercury is visible all month in the pre-dawn eastern sky. The first world also grows brighter throughout the month and is at greatest western elongation on March 14th. After this date, Mercury descends quickly toward the eastern horizon and becomes increasingly more difficult to observe. VERDICT: Mercury watches should seek the winged messenger world mid month, when it will be easiest to see. Observe Mercury when you can, as it will vanish for about a month starting in early April.
VENUS: The inferiors linger in the early morning eastern sky. One can only see Mercury and Venus this month in the early morning. Venus outshines all the planets and night sky stars, of course. Its brightness superiority is never challenged, except by the highly rare proximate supernova. Like Mercury, Venus also reaches greatest western elongation (March 22). VERDICT: Venus is always a beautiful sight. Some might even want to wake up early just to admire it. Remember: Venus remains in the early morning sky until August, when it will disappear until late December. Catch Venus while you can!
MARS: We suppose we should tell you now that Mars will be April's pick planet. After all, the red planet will be at opposition then and at it brightest. This month, Mars is at the prequel stage prior to this opposition. Find it in the mid evening eastern and morning western sky. Mars increases in brightness rapidly this month. It is brighter than Mercury and Saturn, but remains dimmer than Jupiter and Venus. VERDICT: Finding Mars isn't difficult provided one is outside in the mid evening. Though it is not the brightest planet, Mars is sill quite conspicuous.
JUPTIER (PICK PLANET!) Jupiter's reign as pick planet is about to end, at least for awhile. Jupiter is a prominent sight high in the southern sky after dark. Jupiter grows slightly dimmer throughout March, but remains the brightest evening planet all month as Venus is up in the morning. VERDICT: It couldn't be easier. Jupiter attains its highest altitude as the skies darken and remains visible until after midnight.
SATURN: The sixth world is also growing brighter and rising earlier. Saturn will be at opposition in May, when it will be at its brightest. Now, Saturn rises in the mid evening and remains visible throughout the remainder of the evening. Though it is the dimmest of the naked eye worlds, Saturn is still moderately bright and easy to observe. VERDICT: Though not as easy as Jupiter or even Mars, Saturn is there for your viewing if you're out in the late evening and/or early morning.
PLANETS IN ORDER OF DECREASING BRIGHTNESS
VENUS - JUPITER - MARS - MERCURY - SATURN