2023, March 24: Moon Dances with Planets


March 24, 2023: After sunset, the lovely crescent moon is above Venus. Through a binocular, Venus and Uranus are visible in the same field of view.

Photo Caption – 2021, December 6: Venus and the moon.


by Jeffrey L. Hunt

Chicago, Illinois:  Sunrise, 6:48 a.m. CDT; Sunset, 7:07 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

Saturn continues to enter a darker morning sky.  This morning at thirty minutes before daybreak, the Ringed Wonder is over 7° above the east-southeast.  It is not bright enough to be easily seen through a binocular.

Evening Sky

Chart Caption – 2023, March 24: Venus, Jupiter and the crescent moon are in the western sky after sundown.

Mercury is emerging from bright evening twilight into a darker sky. Rising five to six minutes earlier each evening, the solar system’s fastest planet sets twenty-six minutes after sundown this evening. 

Next month Mercury puts on its best evening display of the year.  The ecliptic, the solar system’s plane, is tilted at a very favorable angle in the northern hemisphere to see the planet higher in the sky than at other times of the year.  At its summer appearance, it sets around the time of the middle of evening twilight.  During late-autumn, the planet is reasonably high, but not as elevated as the spring evening visibility.

Beginning April 7 and lasting through the next eight nights, the planet sets over 140 minutes after sunset.  At one hour after sundown, Mercury is nearly 10° up in the western sky, an unusual altitude for the planet at this time interval after sunset.  This occurs only during spring evenings.

At forty-five minutes after sunset, the lovely crescent moon, 13% illuminated, is one-third of the way up in the western sky and 6.6° to the upper left of brilliant Venus.  Earlier today, evening in southern Asia and Indonesia, the moon covered or occulted the planet.

Photo Caption – 2023, January 23: Evening crescent moon with earthshine.

Regardless of your location, look for earthshine on the moon’s night portion.  This effect is reflected sunlight from Earth’s oceans, clouds, and land that gently illuminates the lunar night. 

It can be seen without optical assistance and easily photographed with a tripod-mounted camera.  Those with a steady hand may capture it with a camera phone.

Chart Caption – 2023, March 24: Through a binocular, Venus, Uranus, and the crescent moon are visible.

Venus and the lunar crescent, snugly fit into the same binocular field, with the moon near the top and Venus near the bottom.  Uranus, 1.2° to the lower left of the crescent, is in the field of view as well, but at this level of twilight, it is a challenge to see.  Wait another 30 minutes or so to look for this distant world when twilight is ending.  It appears as an aquamarine star in the binocular.  In the darker sky and for a better view, place the moon at the center of the field of view and look for the faraway planet.

Last night, Venus passed Hamal, the brightest star in Aries.  This evening Venus is 9.6° to the lower left of the star.  Hamal is not bright like Sirius, Betelgeuse or Rigel, but about the same visual intensity as those in the Big Dipper. Look for it carefully.

Jupiter is slipping into brighter twilight, sort of exchanging places with Mercury.  At this hour, Jupiter is less than 5° above the western horizon and 22.3° to the lower right of Venus.  The solar system’s largest planet still can be seen if the horizon is unobstructed.  Or use an elevated structure or hilltop to see across possible obstacles.

Mercury passes Jupiter in three nights.  The event is seen easier through a binocular.

Venus steps eastward about 1° each evening, with its next apparent target Mars, although Earth’s Twin planet passes Uranus in six nights.  Look for the pair together later during that evening.

Chart Caption – 2023, March 24: Mars is in front of eastern Taurus, nearing Gemini.

This evening the Venus-Mars gap is 50.0°.  The Red Planet is high in the southwest, in front of eastern Taurus and nearing Gemini.  This evening it is 7.6° to the upper left of Elnath, the Bull’s northern horn, 6.4° above Zeta Tauri, the southern horn, and 5.0° to the right of Propus, Castor’s toe.

Mars continues to dim with the increased distance to our home world.  This evening notice that it is dimmer than Capella, but brighter than Castor and Pollux, to the Red Planet’s upper left and nearly overhead.

Chart Caption – 2023, March 24: Through a binocular, Mars, Propus, 1 Geminorum (1 Gem), and Messier 35 (M35) are visible.

Place Mars and Propus in the same binocular field.  They seem to bookend the star cluster Messier 35 (M 35 on the chart).  Watch Mars step eastward from night to night.  For the next few evenings, note its place compared to Messier 35 and the star 1 Geminorum (1 Gem on the chart).

Photo Caption – The Pleiades star cluster. (U.S. Naval Observatory)

Messier 35 is a star cluster similar to others in the Milky Way’s spiral arms.  Because of this location, they are frequently named galactic clusters or open clusters, from the appearance of spaces between the stars.

The Pleiades star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters, is likely the most famous open star cluster.  It has many bright blue stars, indicating an age of 150 million years.  It is thought to be about 400 light years away.  Messier 35’s stars resemble those in the Pleiades, indicating a similar age, but M 35’s stars are farther away, making the cluster dimly visible in a dark sky.



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