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March guide to the bright planets

In March, 4 of the 5 bright planets – Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Mercury – are in the evening sky. Saturn is still a morning planet, for now.

Day by day, Venus sinks toward the setting sun whereas Mercury climbs away from the glare of sunset. The two will meet on or near March 18, 2017. Read more.

As March 2017 opens, the waxing crescent moon joins up with Venus, Mars (and Uranus) in the western sky after sunset. Mars remains a rather feeble evening object for the next few months, but March 2017 presents the grand finale of Venus, the sky’s brightest planet, as the evening “star.” Day by day, Venus sets sooner in the west after sunset. On the opposite side of the sky, Jupiter, the second-brightest planet, is rising sooner each evening. By the month’s end, Venus will have dropped out of the evening sky totally, and Jupiter will be shining from dusk until dawn! Mercury starts to climb away from setting sun on March 7, to rendezvous with Venus in the haze of evening twilight on March 18. Last but hardly least, Saturn is rising in the southeast after midnight, and soaring highest up in the sky around daybreak. Follow the links below to learn more about the planets in March 2017.

Brilliant Venus is the “evening star”

Mars, east of Venus, until mid-evening

Saturn lights up morning sky

Bright Jupiter from evening till dawn

Mercury in the evening sky

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See the moon and three planets after sunset on March 1. Read more.

Skywatcher, by Predrag Agatonovic.

Skywatcher, by Predrag Agatonovic.

Brilliant Venus is the “evening star.” Okay, it’s not a star. It’s a planet. But people will call it the evening star all the same. In these past weeks, many have noticed Venus and been amazed at its brilliance in the west after sunset. It’s the brightest planet and very, very bright, and recently displayed its greatest brilliancy as the evening “star” on February 17.

Be sure to catch the waxing crescent moon near Venus (and Mars) on March 1 and March 2. This will be your last chance to see the moon and Mars with Venus in the evening sky in 2017.

Venus and Mars are fairly close together on the sky’s dome at the start of the month. However, as the month progresses, Venus will quickly fall downward from Mars, and toward the setting sun. Venus will pass between the Earth and sun on March 25, to transition from the evening to the morning sky. Although Mars won’t pass behind the sun, to enter the morning sky in late July 2017, Mars will dim all the while between now and then, and moreover, will spend a few months obscured in evening twilight.

From mid-northern latitudes (U.S. and Europe), Venus sets about three hours after the sun in early March and disappears from the evening sky by the month’s end.

At mid-southern latitudes (Australia and South Africa), Venus sets about about one hour after the sun in early March and sinks into the glare of sunset shortly thereafter.

This month, in March 2017, it may be possible to see Venus as both the evening “star” and morning “star” from northerly latitudes for a few to several days, starting on or near March 20. Look in the west shortly after sunset to see Venus at dusk, and look east shortly before sunrise to view Venus at dawn. Click here for an almanac giving you the setting time and rising time of Venus in your sky.

Venus starts its westward retrograde motion in front of the stars of the zodiac on March 2, 2017. Read more.

You needed a telescope to see Neptune … but Venus, the brightest planet, was in conjunction with Neptune, the Hof our solar system’s major planets, on January 12, 2017. Photo by Borislava Georgieva in Bulgaria.

The waxing crescent moon will again meet up with Mars near the month’s end. Read more.

Mars, east of Venus, until mid-evening. After appearing as a bright red light in our sky last May and June 2016, Mars now appears only modestly bright (though possibly still ruddy), above dazzling Venus. Venus is so bright that it pops out almost immediately after sunset, but you’ll have to wait until nightfall to see fainter Mars. Look for the moon close to Mars for a few evenings, centered on March 1 and again on March 30.

From mid-northern latitudes (U.S. and Europe), look for the red planet Mars to set in the west around 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. local time (9:30 to 10:30 p.m. daylight-saving time) all month long.

At mid-southern latitudes (Australia and South Africa), Mars sets in the west roughly 9 p.m. local time at the beginning of the month and about 8 p.m. local time by the month’s end.

Mars will linger in our sky for a few more months. Keep in mind, however, that Earth is traveling away from Mars as we speak – moving far ahead of this planet in the endless race around the sun – so Mars is dimming in our evening sky. Mars is in its long, lingering, relatively inconspicuous phase now. It’ll be still visible in the west to the unaided eye, though not prominent.

Mars won’t make its transition from the evening to morning sky until July 27, 2017. Even so, Mars’ stature in the evening sky will continue to diminish to that of a rather faint “star,” and we expect few – if any – skywatchers to observe the conjunction of Mars and Mercury in the evening sky on June 28, 2017.

The conjunction of Mars and Venus in the morning sky on October 5, 2017, may well present the first good opportunity to spot Mars in the morning sky when it returns from being behind the sun on July 27, 2017.

Looking for a sky almanac? EarthSky recommends…

View larger | Mikhail Chubarets in the Ukraine made this chart.  It shows the view of Mars through a telescope in 2016.  We pass between Mars and the sun on May 22.  We won't see Mars as a disk like this with the eye alone. But, between the start of 2016 and May, the dot of light that is Mars will  grow dramatically brighter and redder in our night sky. Watch for it!

View larger | Mikhail Chubarets in the Ukraine made this chart. It shows the view of Mars through a telescope in 2016. We never see Mars as a disk like this with the eye alone. But you can see why Mars was bright to the eye in 2016, and is now fading.

Use the waning moon as your guide to the star This year, in 2017, the waning moon pairs up with the planet Saturn on the March equinox. Read more.

Saturn lights up morning sky. Saturn swung behind the sun on December 10, 2016, transitioning from the evening to morning sky. In both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, Saturn is easy to view in the morning sky throughout March 2017. From mid-northern latitudes, Saturn rises in the east about two hours after midnight local time in early March, and by the month’s end, Saturn comes up around midnight local time (1 a.m. daylight-saving time).

At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Saturn rises about midnight local time in early March, and by the month’s end, Saturn rises around 10 p.m. local time.

Be sure to let the waning crescent moon guide you to Saturn (and the nearby star Antares) for several days, centered on or near March 20.

Saturn, the farthest world that you can easily view with the eye alone, appears golden in color. It shines with a steady light.

Binoculars don’t reveal Saturn’s gorgeous rings, by the way, although binoculars will enhance Saturn’s golden color. To see the rings, you need a small telescope. A telescope will also reveal one or more of Saturn’s many moons, most notably Titan.

Saturn’s rings are inclined at nearly 27o from edge-on, exhibiting their northern face. In October 2017, the rings will open most widely, displaying a maximum inclination of 27o.

As with so much in space (and on Earth), the appearance of Saturn’s rings from Earth is cyclical. In the year 2025, the rings will appear edge-on as seen from Earth. After that, we’ll begin to see the south side of Saturn’s rings, to increase to a maximum inclination of 27o by May 2032.

Click here for recommended almanacs. They can help you know when the planets rise, transit and set in your sky

http://www.leisurelyscientist.com

Tom Wildoner over-exposed Saturn itself to capture this view of Saturn’s moons on June 25, 2016. Visit Tom at LeisurelyScientist.com.

Contrasting the size of Saturn and its rings with our planet Earth via Hubble Heritage Team.

Contrasting the size of Saturn and its rings with our planet Earth via Hubble Heritage Team.

Let the waning gibbous moon serve as your guide to the dazzling planet Jupiter and Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo the Maiden. Read more.

Bright Jupiter from evening till dawn. Jupiter’s prominence in the nighttime sky will be hard to overlook. Seek out the brightest starlike object before going to bed and that’ll probably be the king planet Jupiter! Look in the southeast sky.

From mid-northern latitudes, like those in the U.S. and Europe, Jupiter rises around 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. local time in early March. By the month’s end, Jupiter rises at dusk or nightfall

From mid-southern latitudes (Australia), look for Jupiter to rise at roughly the same time as at mid-northern latitudes throughout the month.

Watch for the bright waning gibbous moon to join up with Jupiter for several days, centered on or near March 14. See the above sky chart.

By the way, Jupiter shines in front of the constellation Virgo, near Virgo’s brightest star, Spica. Jupiter serves a great reference for learning the constellations of the zodiac, because Jupiter stays in each constellation for roughly a year. So use Jupiter to become familiar with the star Spica and the constellation Virgo, starting now, and throughout 2017.

Look for the planet Jupiter to rise into your southeast sky after dark. If you are blessed with a dark sky, seek out the constellation Corvus near Jupiter and Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo the Maiden.

If you have binoculars or a telescope, it’s fairly easy to see Jupiter’s four major moons, which look like pinpricks of light on or near the same plane. They are often called the Galilean moons to honor Galileo, who discovered these great Jovian moons in 1610. In their order from Jupiter, these moons are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

Jupiter and its four major moons via Jan Sandberg

Jupiter and its four major moons via Jan Sandberg

These moons circle Jupiter around the Jovian equator. In cycles of six years, we view Jupiter’s equator edge-on. So, in 2015, we got to view a number of mutual events involving Jupiter’s moons through a high-powered telescope. Click here or here or here for more details.

Although Jupiter’s axial tilt is only 3o out of perpendicular relative to the ecliptic (Earth’s orbital plane), Jupiter’s axis will tilt enough toward the sun and Earth so that the farthest of these four moons, Callisto, will NOT pass in front of Jupiter or behind Jupiter for a period of about three years, starting in late 2016. During this approximate 3-year period, Callisto will remain “perpetually” visible, alternately swinging “above” and “below” Jupiter.

Click here for a Jupiter’s moons almanac, courtesy of Sky & Telescope.

Wow! Wonderful shot of Mercury – over the Chilean Andes – January 31, 2017, from Yuri Beletsky Nightscapes.

Look for the waxing crescent moon, and the planets Mercury and Mars after sunset on March 29. Read more.

Mercury in the evening sky. Mercury will transition from the morning to evening sky on March 7, 2017. However, this world probably won’t be far enough from the glare of sunset to view until mid-month. Mercury should be in fine view when the waxing crescent moon pairs up with Mercury on March 29. For the Northern Hemisphere, Mercury will put on a good showing in the evening sky for several weeks, centered on April 1.

Mercury is tricky. If you look too soon, Mercury will still be obscured by the haze of evening twilight; if you look too late, it will have followed the sun beneath the horizon. Watch for Mercury low in the sky, and near the sunset point on the horizon, seeking for this hidden treasure around 45 to 75 minutes after sunset. Remember, binoculars are always helpful for any Mercury search. Good Luck!

For the Northern hemisphere, this particular apparition of Mercury in the evening sky will be the best of the year. From temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, it’ll be a poor evening showing of Mercury. But don’t despair if you live at southerly latitudes. You’ll have your turn, when a super apparition of Mercury takes place in your morning sky all during May of 2017.

Click here for recommended almanacs; they can give you Mercury’s setting time in your sky.

What do we mean by bright planet? By bright planet, we mean any solar system planet that is easily visible without an optical aid and that has been watched by our ancestors since time immemorial. In their outward order from the sun, the five bright planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These planets actually do appear bright in our sky. They are typically as bright as – or brighter than – the brightest stars. Plus, these relatively nearby worlds tend to shine with a steadier light than the distant, twinkling stars. You can spot them, and come to know them as faithful friends, if you try.

From late January, and through mid-February, 5 bright planets were visible at once in the predawn sky. This image is from February 8, 2016.  It's by Eliot Herman in Tucson, Arizona.  View on Flickr.

This image is from February 8, 2016. It shows all 5 bright planets at once. Photo by our friend Eliot Herman in Tucson, Arizona.

Bottom line: In March 2017, four of the five bright planets appear in the evening sky: Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Mercury. Saturn is found the morning sky.

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Bruce McClure

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