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Astronomy: Observing Highlights for March

March 2012 venus jupiter moon KKW

If the night sky looks especially brilliant in early March, that's because it is. The six brightest objects in the night sky all appear at one time after sunset. The event will only last a couple days, though, as the brightness of two of the objects, Mercury and Mars, will begin to dim and lose their top night-sky rankings.

The six brightest objects in the sky are, in order, the moon, Venus, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury and the star Sirius. All six appear together after sunset on the first three days of March. They will still be visible after those days, but Mercury and Mars will be getting dimmer from their peak brightness. Starting in the west after the sun has set, look for Mercury close to the horizon. Dazzling Venus will be above Mercury, and Jupiter will be just above Venus. Look up to see the moon, and then south to find the star Sirius to the lower left of Orion. Lastly, the reddish dot of Mars can be easily discovered rising in the east.

The moon just made a couple of pretty pairings with Venus and Jupiter in late February, and it will meet up with the planets again as it goes through its cycle in March. On March 6 and 7, the moon will pass not far from Mars. Just a bit earlier, on March 5, Mars came its closest to Earth at 63 million miles distant. The full moon occurs on March 8, and at the end of the week, on March 10, the moon will be near the star Spica in Virgo and Saturn. March 25 will find the moon near Jupiter, and the next night it will be close to Venus.

In February the moon visited Venus first and then Jupiter, but the order is reversed in March because Venus and Jupiter will be swapping places. But first they have to pass very close by each other. On March 12 and 13, the two brightest planets, which have been inching closer together nightly, will finally have their closest conjunction for the year. Venus and Jupiter will lie approximately three degrees apart in the west. Venus is striking at magnitude -4.3, with Jupiter shining at magnitude -2.1.

One other notable but unseen celestial event occurs in March. The Northern Hemisphere experiences the spring equinox on either March 19 or 20, depending on where you live. The moment when the sun passes directly over the equator is at 1:14 am EDT on March 20, which translates to 10:14 pm PDT March 19. Therefore, the first day of spring in North America occurs on two separate days.

For more stargazing info, see The Night Sky Observing Guide for March 2012.

-- article and image by Kelly Kizer Whitt/Image: In late February, the moon paired up with Jupiter and Venus glowed brightly just below.

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