2023, March 14: Mars-Zeta Tauri Conjunction, Morning Moon


March 14, 2023: Before sunrise, the moon is near Antares, the brightest star in Scorpius.  After sundown, Mars passes Zeta Tauri for the third conjunction.  The Red Planet is near the Crab Nebula.


by Jeffrey L. Hunt

Chicago, Illinois:  Sunrise, 7:05 a.m. CDT; Sunset, 6:56 p.m. CDT.  Check local sources for sunrise and sunset times for your location.  Times are calculated from the U.S. Naval Observatory’s MICA computer program.

Here is today’s planet forecast:

Morning Sky

Chart Caption – 2023, March 14: The moon is near Antares before sunrise.

This morning’s slightly gibbous moon, 57% illuminated, is over 20° up in the south, one hour before sunrise.  It is 6.4° to the lower left of Antares, the brightest star in Scorpius. The lunar orb is at its morning half-full (Last Quarter) phase at 9:08 p.m. CDT.  It does not rise until after 3 a.m. CDT tomorrow morning in Chicago, about four hours before daybreak.   The morning moon is in front of Ophiuchus.

In celestial artwork, Antares marks the Scorpion’s heart.  One star on each side of Antares are sometimes referred as the arteries.  The star’s name means, “the rival of Mars.”

Scorpius is a pattern that resembles its namesake, looking like a fishhook or letter “J”.  From Antares, the pattern curves toward the southern horizon and curves back up ending with two stars of somewhat equal brightness, commonly called “the cat’s eyes.”  Shaula, the brighter and eastern eye, means “the cocked-up part of the scorpion’s tail.”  Lesath, the western star, means “the scorpion’s sting.’  Read more about star names and their meanings from George A. Davis’1944 article.

Evening Sky

Chart Caption – 2023, March 14: Venus and Jupiter are in the west as night falls.

After sundown, Venus and Jupiter sparkle in the western sky.  At forty-five minutes after sunset, brilliant Venus is over 20° above the horizon and 12.6° to the upper left of Jupiter.

Venus sets later each night compared to night fall, while Jupiter sets about four minutes earlier.  The Jovian Giant is slipping in to brighter twilight, disappearing into the sun’s glare at month’s end, to reappear in the morning sky near spring’s mid-point.

Chart Caption – 2023, March 14: High in the southwest during early evening, Mars passes Zeta Tauri.

Mars is higher in the southwest.  It passes, 4.4° from Zeta Tauri this evening for the final conjunction of a triple conjunction series. 

Chart Caption – 2023, March 14: This annotated chart indicates the Mars-Zeta Tauri conjunction.

The first occurred October 22, 2022, followed by the second on November 7th, when Mars was retrograding. This is the last bright landmark in Taurus that Mars passes during this Martian apparition. The Red Planet marches into Gemini on the 26th.

Chart Caption – 2023, March 14: From north of the solar system, the growing Earth-Mars gap is shown at the third Mars-Zeta Tauri conjunction.

Mars dims as Earth moves farther away from the Red Planet.  It is dimmer than Capella to its upper right, but brighter than Aldebaran, the Bull’s brightest star.

While Zeta Tauri is the last bright landmark, an important celestial body appears near Mars and Zeta Tauri.  It is the Crab Nebula, sometimes catalogued as Messier 1, from an 18th Century list made by French comet hunter Charles Messier.

This view of the Crab Nebula in visible light comes from the Hubble Space Telescope and spans 12 light-years. The supernova remnant, located 6,500 light-years away in the constellation Taurus, is among the best-studied objects in the sky. Credits: NASA/ESA/ASU/J. Hester

The Crab is an oval cloud in the typical telescope and visible through a binocular as a hazy patch. Time exposure photography collects light to provide the details of the tangles of gas.  The cloud is rushing outward from a rotating neutron star, the rapidly spinning mass of the stellar core. The rotating pulsar sends out a stream of light, like that of a lighthouse.  When the star turns earthward, we record a flash of radio waves.  When timing equipment is used, the pulsar can be seen flashing.

The Crab Nebula represents the terminal state of the life cycle of a star.  It confirms stellar evolution theory, similar to the existence of stellar black holes and white dwarfs.

The nebula’s luminescence is from accelerating atomic particles through magnetic fields, like those produced in particle accelerators in scientific laboratories.

The nebula is the remnant of a supernova that appeared in the skies of Earth during the year 1054.  Chinese astronomers recorded the event.  The supernova was visible for two years before it faded from the view of the human eye.

Photo Caption – Artwork of a star and crescent, Chaco Culture National Historic Park (Photo by NCAR)

In Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, some astronomers suspect that someone chronicled the supernova on a rocky overhang, because during July 1054, the crescent moon appeared near the brilliant star.  Archeologists counter that the practices of the culture across the southwest during the 11th Century did not record events in the artwork.  Rather, artwork carved into and painted on the rock walls recorded everyday life, not specific events.

The late astronomer Geoffrey Burbidge noted the importance of the Crab Nebula by saying that there are two parts of astronomy – “the astronomy of the Crab Nebula and the astronomy of everything else.”



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