Nestled close to a fire on a cold winter evening, we can dream of spring’s timely arrival. But while we wait for milder weather, the month of March offers a few key moments: For example, the return of Daylight Saving Time and the spring equinox. Also this March, the planet Mars is moving in retrograde.
The Red Planet definitely takes centre stage this month while it dances with the stars! At the beginning of the month Mars rises in the east around 9:30 P.M. and by month’s end, it appears above the horizon at twilight. Mars is currently quite bright, rivalling Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.
On March 1, the Red Planet ceases its direct motion from west to east against the starry backdrop and begins its retrograde movement in the opposite direction. Of course, planets don’t actually reverse their orbital motion: retrograde movement is an illusion. Because Earth’s orbit is smaller than that of Mars, our planet orbits the Sun more quickly. When the two planets are on the same side of the Sun, Earth passes Mars and for several weeks the Red Planet seems to move backward against the background stars. Mars will continue to move in retrograde until May 21, at which point it will resume its direct motion. The Red Planet is currently near Spica, the brightest star in Virgo, which serves as a reference point.
A planet’s retrograde movement is associated with its opposition, the moment when it is directly opposite the Sun in the sky. Mars is at opposition on April 8… But more about this next month!
The Moon and planets among the constellations
This year, March is ideal for observing the lunar cycle from start to finish since the month begins and ends with the new Moon. This month also offers an opportunity to follow the Moon’s movement among the constellations.
On March 1, the Moon is new and isn’t visible in the sky, but the following evening a thin crescent will be visible on the western horizon an hour after sunset. Try not to miss this beautiful celestial display!
The lunar crescent will pass beneath the Pleiades star cluster on March 6, and the following evening the first quarter Moon will be in the vicinity of the bright star, Aldebaran, and the Hyades cluster in Taurus.
Jupiter receives a visit from the gibbous Moon on the evenings of March 9 and 10. The brilliant planet is visible high in the south, among the stars of Gemini, right after sunset. Jupiter was at opposition on January 5, and its retrograde movement ends on March 6.
The waxing gibbous Moon continues its trek toward Regulus, in Leo, which it approaches on the evenings of March 13 and 14. The following night of March 15 to 16, the Moon will be full, and two nights later, on March 18 to 19, Mars, Spica and the gibbous Moon will form a celestial triangle among the stars of Virgo.
On the night of March 20 to 21, Saturn is next in line to welcome the gibbous Moon. The ringed planet rises around midnight among the stars of Libra, which is a well known constellation, but one whose stars are quite faint.
Venus rises two hours before the Sun and is on the move! At the beginning of the month, the dazzling planet is in Sagittarius, but it crosses into Capricornus on March 6; and from March 21 to 26, it makes a brief foray into Aquarius before returning to Capricornus. On the morning of March 27, the waning lunar crescent will appear next to Venus.
The sequence of lunar phases ends on March 30: The Moon will be new for the second time this month, completing its 29-and-a-half-day cycle.
Changing time and spring’s arrival
In North America, we switch to Daylight Time on the second Sunday in March. This year, clocks will be moved ahead one hour on March 9 at 2:00 A.M. But don’t worry… you don’t have to get up in the middle of the night to change the time! You can do it before going to bed, or after a night of observing if the sky is clear.
And finally, if you feel like winter has been dragging on, here’s some good news: The spring equinox takes place on March 20 at 12:57 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time. It’s the time of year when the number of daylight hours increases most rapidly in the Northern Hemisphere. In Montreal, at the beginning of the month, the Sun is in the sky for 11 hours and 10 minutes. By month’s end, the Sun rises at 6:35 A.M. and sets at 7:20 P.M. It remains in the sky for 12 hours and 45 minutes — a gain of more than an-hour-and-a-half of sunlight!