March evenings offer an excellent chance to see the zodiacal light. From the Northern Hemisphere, late winter and early spring are great times to observe this elusive glow after sunset. It appears slightly fainter than the Milky Way, so you’ll need a clear moonless sky and an observing site located far from the city. With the waning gibbous Moon now exiting the early evening sky, prime viewing conditions extend from tonight through April 6. Look for the cone-shaped glow, which has a broad base and points nearly straight up from the western horizon, after the last vestiges of twilight have faded away.
Saturday, March 23
Mars continues to put on a nice show these March evenings. It appears more than 30° high in the west once twilight fades to darkness and doesn’t set until after 11 p.m. local daylight time. The magnitude 1.4 Red Planet crosses the border from Aries the Ram into Taurus the Bull today, setting up a dramatic conjunction with the beautiful Pleiades star cluster (M45). Mars remains within the same binocular field as the cluster from tonight until early April, and it will pass 3° south of M45 a week from now. Unfortunately, Mars shows little if any detail on its 5″-diameter disk when viewed through a telescope.
Sunday, March 24
Orion the Hunter stands out in the southwest as darkness falls this week. The conspicuous constellation appears slightly askew compared with its appearance in winter’s evening sky. Now, the three-star belt is aligned parallel to the horizon while blue-white Rigel hangs directly below the belt and ruddy Betelgeuse stands directly above.
Jupiter continues to grow more prominent before dawn. The giant planet rises before 2 a.m. local daylight time and climbs 30° high in the south an hour before sunup. It also shines at magnitude –2.2, making it the brightest point of light in the morning sky until Venus rises around 5:30 a.m. A telescope reveals at least two conspicuous cloud belts on Jupiter’s 39″-diameter disk. And this morning, North American observers have a great opportunity to watch the shadows of two moons cross the planet’s bright cloud tops. At 3:56 a.m. EDT, Ganymede’s shadow first touches the jovian atmosphere; Europa’s shadow joins it at 4:06 a.m. The black dot cast by Ganymede lifts back into space at 6:04 a.m. followed by Europa’s at 6:27 a.m. Any telescope will provide excellent views of these shadow transits.
Tuesday, March 26
One of the spring sky’s finest deep-sky objects, the Beehive star cluster (M44) in the constellation Cancer the Crab, lies high in the south after darkness falls. With the naked eye from under a dark sky, you should be able to spot this star group as a fuzzy cloud. But the Beehive explodes into dozens of stars when viewed through binoculars or a telescope.
Less than 10 minutes after Jupiter pokes above the southeastern horizon this morning, the waning gibbous Moon rises to the planet’s lower left. The two objects remain neighbors as they ascend in the predawn sky.
Thursday, March 28
Last Quarter Moon arrives at 12:10 a.m. EDT (9:10 p.m. PDT yesterday evening). It rises around 2:30 a.m. local daylight time and climbs higher in the southeast as dawn approaches. During this period, our half-lit satellite lies among the background stars of Sagittarius the Archer, north of the conspicuous Teapot asterism.
Friday, March 29
The Moon moves eastward relative to the background stars an average of 13° every day, and this morning it has traveled to the vicinity of Saturn. The ringed planet rises around 3:15 a.m. local daylight time and the Moon, which now appears as a waning crescent, follows about 10 minutes later. The two remain within 3° of each other throughout the morning hours. Magnitude 0.6 Saturn remains a fixture in northeastern Sagittarius all week. If you target the gas giant through a telescope, you’ll see its 16″-diameter disk surrounding by a stunning ring system that spans 37″ and tilts 24° to our line of sight.
Mars appears 3° south of the Pleiades star cluster both this evening and tomorrow night, making a dramatic sight through binoculars. The ruddy hue of the planet provides a nice contrast to the cluster’s blue-white stars.
Saturday, March 30
This is a good week to look for Sirius in the evening sky. The night sky’s brightest star (at magnitude –1.5) appears in the southwestern sky after twilight ends. It then lies about one-third of the way from the horizon to the zenith from mid-northern latitudes. (The farther south you live, the higher it appears.) If you point binoculars at Sirius, look for the pretty star cluster M41 in the same field of view, just 4° south of the star.
Sunday, March 31
Just as morning twilight starts to paint the sky, Venus pokes above the eastern horizon. The brilliant planet dominates the predawn sky for the next hour as the rosy glow heralding the Sun’s arrival grows brighter. Venus shines at magnitude –3.9, nearly two magnitudes brighter than the second-brightest planet, Jupiter. When viewed through a telescope, the inner world shows a disk that spans 13″ and appears about 80 percent lit.
The Moon reaches apogee, the farthest point in its orbit around Earth, at 8:14 p.m. EDT. It then lies 252,014 miles (405,577 kilometers) from Earth’s center.