Sky Watching, March 2012

Moon Phases:

Full Moon — 3/8
Last Quarter — 3/14
New Moon — 3/22
First Quarter — 3/30

Daylight Saving Time begins for most states in the U.S. on March 11 at 2 a.m. local time.  Advance clocks 1 hour.

The Vernal Equinox occurs on March 20 at 12:14 a.m. CDT, signalling the beginning of Spring.  Daylight increases for three months until late June.  At this time, the sun appears directly above the equator, meaning that individuals living at the equator have the sun appear directly overhead.  The sun does not appear directly overhead from the Chicago area.

The month opens with the spectacular Venus-Jupiter gathering in the western sky, just after sunset.  With binoculars and a clear horizon, locate Mercury low in the sky early in the month. 

By mid-month, Jupiter and Venus appear close together.  While millions of miles apart, the two planets appear about 3 degrees (six full moons) apart.  The chart above shows the pair on March 12, one of the nights they appear closest.  Notice the view is one hour later as daylight saving time (advance your clock one hour) on March 11.

The animation above shows Venus and Jupiter each night during March 2012 in the early evening sky.  Watch to two planets appear to converge then separate.

After the closest pairing of Jupiter and Venus, the moon appears in the western sky with them in late March.  Here’s what to look for at approximately 8:15 CDT in Chicago:

March 24:  The waxing crescent moon appears below Jupiter and Venus, near the western horizon.
March 25: Jupiter and the moon are paired nicely, with the moon appearing slightly higher and to the right of Jupiter
March 26:  Tonight, Venus and the moon are nicely paired with both objects appearing about the same height above the western horizon.  This is the night to catch a classic photographic view of the moon and Venus together.
March 27:  The moon stands above Venus and Jupiter as the planetary pair continues to separate.

At the same time that the brilliant group gleams in the western sky, Mars lies low in the eastern sky.  It is the brightest starlike object in this part of the sky, but it dramatically under shines the bright duo in the west.  Mars appears slightly red-orange and its color can be distinguished with binoculars.  On March 3,Earth passes between the sun and Mars — an opposition.  At this time, Mars is about 60 million miles away.  An opposition for Mars occurs about every 25 months.  Because Mars’ orbit is moderately elliptical, this opposition occurs when Mars is farthest from the sun (aphelion), it is not as close or as bright as several previous oppositions.

The waxing gibbous moon appears near Mars on March 6 and March 7.

A few days  later, the Moon appears near Saturn and Spica.  Saturn rises just around midnight in the southeastern sky.  The chart above shows the planet-star pair with the moon for March 10 and March 11.  The constellation Corvus is nearby.

The chart above shows the planets at mid_March 2012. Notice that an imaginary line extended from Earth to Venus goes to Jupiter. That is why the two planets appear close together in our sky, but they are widely separated in space. Additionally notice that our planet is between Mars and the sun — they are on opposite sides of Earth.


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