In March, the Sun and Moon come together on two occasions, but their tryst is unobservable. So instead, let’s concentrate on Jupiter, this month’s “star”… unless perhaps, you’d rather go hunting auroras.
Jupiter is at opposition on March 8. As such, the giant planet is opposite the Sun as seen from Earth and remains visible all night long; throughout March, it rises in the east at sunset and sets in the west at sunrise. This month, Jupiter is the brightest object in the nighttime sky (except for the Moon) and is well placed for observation high in the south around midnight, beneath the principal stars of Leo.
Jupiter and the nearly full gibbous moon form a captivating naked-eye duo on the night of March 21 to 22. In a small telescope, Jupiter reveals its light and dark cloud bands, along with its four largest moons, discovered by Galileo over four centuries ago. On a couple of occasions this month, two of the Galilean satellites cast their shadows on the Jovian cloud tops simultaneously: Look for them starting at 10:22 P.M. on the evening of March 14, and at 00:23 A.M. on the night of the 21st to 22nd.
While Jupiter captures the spotlight, don’t forget to observe Mars and Saturn in the east during the pre-dawn hours. At the beginning and end of the month, the Moon will help locate the two planets, which do not twinkle but whose colour (orange for Mars and yellowish-white for Saturn) is remarkable. On March 1, the waning gibbous moon will form one corner of a quadrilateral consisting of Mars, Saturn and Antares, the brightest star in Scorpius. The following morning, the last lunar quarter will be just 2 ½ degrees to the left of Saturn, and on the morning of March 29, look for a celestial triangle formed by the waning gibbous moon, Mars and Saturn.
Though the Moon only appears near Mars and Saturn at the beginning and end of the month, in the meantime you should have no problem spotting the planetary duo in the early morning sky. As the evenings pass, use the pincer-stars of Scorpius to gauge Mars’ movement against the celestial background. Turning to Saturn next, even the smallest telescope will reveal the planet’s breathtaking rings.
Equinoxes and the aurora borealis
Though the aurora borealis is normally prevalent under more northerly skies than ours, this amazing celestial light show can occasionally be seen from southern Quebec. During periods of increased solar activity, the zone of auroral visibility expands and reaches down to our latitudes.
The weeks surrounding the spring equinox, which occurs this year at precisely 00:30 A.M. on March 20, offer the ideal time to set out in search of breathtaking northern lights. They occur more frequently around the equinoxes, in March and September, though the reason for this increase is not yet fully understood.
There are numerous web sites and mobile apps that predict auroral activity and help to plan observations. But like the weather, these predictions are somewhat uncertain, so several attempts may likely be required before you succeed in seeing the auroras. Don’t give up…
The Sun and Moon tease us
A total solar eclipse will occur on March 9 (actually March 8 in Quebec), though it won’t be visible from our part of the world. In fact, the Moon’s shadow will trace a thin path of totality that sweeps over the Indonesian archipelago and out across the western Pacific. But if you are travelling in Southeast Asia, China, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, New Guinea or Australia, you’ll have a chance to see the Sun partially eclipsed.
At dawn on March 23, a lunar eclipse will also take place… but again, we won’t see it. The event gets underway at 5:39 A.M. (EST), but only the initial penumbral phase will be visible—in theory—before the Moon sets, around 7:00 A.M. Because Earth’s penumbra isn’t as dark as the umbra, it only slightly attenuates sunlight reaching the lunar surface, so the effect is subtle. With the Moon close to the horizon, the low contrast of the penumbral phase at dawn will render the event virtually impossible to observe.
The hour advances
We move ahead to Daylight Time during the night of March 12 to 13. From then until November, clocks will be ahead of solar time by one hour.
And finally… remember to consult our sky map to find the constellations that are visible in the evening.