Night sky guide for March 2016

Night sky guide for March 2016

There will be, at least, two special celestial events during March 2016 - total solar eclipse at 01:58 UTC on March 9 and penumbral lunar eclipse at 11:48 UTC on March 23.

March Equinox, the first day of spring (vernal equinox) in the northern hemisphere and the first day of fall (autumnal equinox) in the southern hemisphere is at 04:24 on March 20.

The best time of the year to observe faint objects such as galaxies and star clusters because there is no moonlight to interfere - new moon - is on March 9. Over the coming days,  the Moon will become visible in the late afternoon and dusk sky as a waxing crescent, setting an hour later each evening. By the first quarter, in a week's time, it will be visible until around midnight. 

  • March 1 - Moon at last quarter - 23:12 UTC. The Moon will reach its last quarter phase at 23:12 UTC on March 1. Moon's orbital motion carries it around the Earth once every four weeks, and, as a result, its phases cycle from new moon, through the first quarter, full moon and last quarter, back to the new moon once every 29.5 days. This motion also means that the Moon travels more than 12° across the sky from one night to the next, causing it to rise and set nearly an hour later each day.

  • March 2 - Conjunction between the Moon and Saturn - 07:12 UTC. The Moon and Saturn will make a close approach, passing within 3°33' of each other. At the moment of closest approach, the Moon will be at mag -11.8, and Saturn at mag 1.1, both in the constellation Ophiuchus. The pair will be too widely separated to fit within the field of view of a telescope, but will be visible to the naked eye or through a pair of binoculars.

  • March 2 - IC2602 well placed for observation. Across much of the world, the theta Carinae open star cluster (IC 2602, also known as the Southern Pleiades) will be well placed for observation. It will reach its highest point in the sky at around midnight local time. At a declination of -64°24', it is easiest to see from the southern hemisphere and cannot be seen from latitudes much north of 5°N. At magnitude 1.9, IC2602 is visible to the naked eye, but best viewed through a pair of binoculars.

  • March 3 - Ceres at solar conjunction - 20:11 UTC. From our vantage point on the Earth, Ceres will appear very close to the Sun in the sky as it passes around the far side of the Solar System from the Earth. At closest approach, Ceres and the Sun will appear at a separation of only 7°, making Ceres totally unobservable for several weeks while it is lost in the Sun's glare. At around the same time, Ceres will also be at its most distant from the Earth – receding to a distance of 3.95 AU – since the two planets will lie on opposite sides of the Solar System. If Ceres could be observed at this time, it would appear at its smallest and faintest on account of its large distance. It would measure 0.0 arcsec in diameter. Ceres will re-emerge to the west of the Sun, gradually becoming visible for ever-longer periods in the pre-dawn sky over the following weeks and months. After around six months, it will reach opposition, when it will be visible for virtually the whole night. A chart of the path of Ceres across the night sky can be found here, and a chart of its rising and setting times here.

  • March 8 - Jupiter at Opposition - 10:46 UTC. Jupiter will be at its closest approach to Earth on March 8th. With its face fully illuminated by the Sun, it will be placed for observation, in the constellation Leo. The planet will be visible for much of the night, reaching its highest point in the sky at around midnight local time. It will be brighter than any other time of the year and will be visible all night long. This is the best time to view and photograph Jupiter and its moons. Over the weeks following its opposition, Jupiter will reach its highest point in the sky four minutes earlier each night, gradually receding from the pre-dawn morning sky while remaining visible in the evening sky for a few months.

  • March 8 - NGC 3532 well placed for observation. Across much of the world, the wishing well open star cluster (NGC 3532) in Carina will be well placed for observation. It will reach its highest point in the sky at around midnight local time. At a declination of -58°40', it is easiest to see from the southern hemisphere and cannot be seen from latitudes much north of 11°N. At magnitude 3.0, NGC3532 is tricky to make out with the naked eye except from a dark site but is visible through a pair of binoculars or a small telescope.

  • March 9 - New moon - 01:56 UTC. The Moon will pass close to the Sun on March 9 and become lost in its glare for a few days. This is the best time of the month to observe faint objects such as galaxies and star clusters because there is no moonlight to interfere. At new moon, the Earth, Moon and Sun all lie in a roughly straight line, with the Moon in the middle, appearing in front of the Sun's glare. In this configuration, we see almost exactly the opposite half of the Moon to that which is illuminated by the Sun, making it doubly unobservable because the side we see is almost entirely unilluminated. Over coming days, the Moon will become visible in the late afternoon and dusk sky as a waxing crescent, setting an hour later each evening. By the first quarter, in a week's time, it will be visible until around midnight. 

  • March 9 - Total solar eclipse - 01:58 UTC. A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon completely blocks the Sun, revealing the Sun's beautiful outer atmosphere known as the corona. The path of totality will only be visible in parts of central Indonesia and the Pacific Ocean. A partial eclipse will be visible in most parts of northern Australia and southeast Asia. 

Image credit: NASA / Fred Espenak

  • March 10 - C/2014 W2 (PANSTARRS) at perihelion. Comet C/2014 W2 (PANSTARRS) will make its closest approach to the Sun, at a distance of 2.67 AU.

  • March 15 - Moon at first quarter- 17:04 UTC. The Moon will reach its first quarter phase. Over the next few days, the distance between the Moon and Sun will increase each night as the Moon reaches full phase. Rather than rising in the afternoon and appearing high in the sky by sunset, it will rise later and make it less far above your eastern horizon before nightfall.

  • March 20 - March Equinox - 04:24 UTC. The Sun will shine directly on the equator, and there will be nearly equal amounts of day and night throughout the world. This is also the first day of spring (vernal equinox) in the northern hemisphere and the first day of fall (autumnal equinox) in the southern hemisphere.

  • March 22 - 136472 Makemake at opposition - 01:43 UTC. 136472 Makemake will be well placed for observation, in the constellation Coma Berenices. It will be visible for much of the night, reaching its highest point in the sky at around midnight local time. Over the weeks following its opposition, 136472 Makemake will reach its highest point in the sky four minutes earlier each night, gradually receding from the pre-dawn morning sky while remaining visible in the evening sky for a few months.

  • March 22 - Conjunction between the Moon and Jupiter - 02:48 UTC. The Moon and Jupiter will make a close approach, passing within 1°57' of each other. At the moment of closest approach, the Moon will be at mag -12.5, and Jupiter at mag -2.5, both in the constellation LeoThe pair will be too widely separated to fit within the field of view of a telescope, but will be visible to the naked eye or through a pair of binoculars.

  • March 23 - Penumbral lunar eclipse - 11:48 UTC. A penumbral lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes through the Earth's partial shadow, or penumbra. During this type of eclipse the Moon will darken slightly but not completely. The eclipse will be visible throughout most of extreme eastern Asia, eastern Australia, the Pacific Ocean, and the west coast of North America including Alaska.

  • March 23 - Full Moon - 12:02 UTC. The Moon will be located on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun, and its face will be will be fully illuminated. This full moon was known by early Native American tribes as the Full Worm Moon because this was the time of year when the ground would begin to soften, and the earthworms would reappear. This moon has also been known as the Full Crow Moon, the Full Crust Moon, the Full Sap Moon, and the Lenten Moon. Full Moons are traditionally given names according to the season in which they fall, and this will be the first full moon of spring 2016, traditionally called the Egg Moon. Over the nights following March 23, the Moon will rise around an hour later each day so as to become prominent later in the night. Within a few days, it will only be visible in the pre-dawn and early-morning sky. By the time it reaches last quarter, a week after full moon, it will rise at around midnight and set at around noon. At the moment when the Moon reaches full phase, it will lie at a declination of -00°15' in the constellation Virgo, and so will appear high in the sky at all but the most extreme latitudes. It will be visible at all latitudes between 79°N and 80°S. Its distance from the Earth will be 404,000 km.

  • March 23 - Mercury at superior solar conjunction - 19:58 UTC. From our vantage point on the Earth, Mercury will appear very close to the Sun in the sky as it passes around the far side of the solar system from the Earth. At closest approach, Mercury and the Sun will appear at a separation of only 1°17', making Mercury totally unobservable for several weeks while it is lost in the Sun's glare. Mercury will also pass apogee – the time when it is most distant from the Earth – within a few days of the same time, since it will lie exactly opposite to the Earth in the Solar System. It will move to a distance of 1.35 AU from the Earth, making it appear small and very distant. If it could be observed, it would measure 5.0 arcsec in diameter, whilst appearing completely illuminated.

  • March 26 - 104P/Kowal reaches its brightest. Comet 104P/Kowal is forecast to reach its brightest, at around mag 12.6. It will lie at a distance of 1.18 AU from the Sun, and at a distance of 1.80 AU from the Earth. Mercury's reaching superior conjunction marks the end of its apparition in the morning sky and its transition to become an evening object over the next few weeks.

  • March 28 - Conjunction between the Moon and Mars - 20:00 UTC. The Moon and Mars will make a close approach, passing within 4°08' of each other. At the moment of closest approach, the Moon will be at mag -12.3, and Mars at mag -0.8, both in the constellation ScorpiusThe pair will be too widely separated to fit within the field of view of a telescope, but will be visible to the naked eye or through a pair of binoculars.

  • March 28 - 104P/Kowal at perihelion. Comet 104P/Kowal will make its closest approach to the Sun, at a distance of 1.18 AU.

  • March 29 - Conjunction between the Moon and Saturn - 15:15 UTC. The Moon and Saturn will make a close approach, passing within 3°28' of each other. At the moment of closest approach, the Moon will be at mag -12.2, and Saturn at mag 1.0, both in the constellation Ophiuchus. The pair will be too widely separated to fit within the field of view of a telescope, but will be visible to the naked eye or through a pair of binoculars.

  • March 31 - Moon at last quarter - 15:18 UTC. The moon will reach its last quarter phase. Over the next few days, the distance between the Moon and the Sun will decrease each night, and it will rise later in the night each day. Eventually, it will only be visible very shortly before sunrise, and it will sink into the Sun's glare as it approaches new moon.

Video courtesy of Hubble Space Telescope

Sources: InTheSky (Dominic Ford)SeaSky

Featured image: NASA/Goddard. Edit: TW

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