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Sky Report -March 2011

As Jupiter leaves the Western Dusk Sky,  Saturn appears in the Eastern Evening Sky

The bright planet Jupiter has been in the evening sky since early fall but its visibility is coming to an end. Jupiter is in Pisces, moving eastward about a quarter of a degree per day. But the sun is moving eastward a degree per day, slowly gaining on Jupiter. At the start of March, Jupiter is setting two hours after the sun. In mid March, the planet Mercury and Jupiter appear together very low in the western dusk. By the end of March, Jupiter is setting only 15 minutes after the sun and has vanished in the twilight. During March, the ringed planet Saturn eases into the evening sky. At the start of March, Saturn is rising in the East about 9 p.m. (Standard Time), about 2.5 hours after sunset. At the end of March, Saturn is rising at sunset. So several hours after sunset, Saturn is then high enough for good telescopic views of its rings in late March.

Below and to the right of Saturn is Spica, Virgo’s brightest star. Saturn will shine steadily in contrast to Spica’s twinkling. A few days into April, Saturn will be closest to the Earth at a distance of 801 million miles. Light then takes 72 minutes to reach us from Saturn’s  cloud tops.

On March 4th, the moon swings from the morning to the evening side of the sun. Two evenings later, a slender crescent moon appears near the bright planet Jupiter low in the western dusk. On March 12th, the evening moon appears half full, like a  tilted letter “D”. The days just before and after this date are the best dates in March to spot the moon’s craters with binoculars. The moon is then rising in the afternoon and can be seen in the late afternoon then. On the evening of March 17th, the moon appears near Regulus, Leo’s brightest star. The moon grows to full on March 19th, then appearing in Virgo. This is a few days before the start of spring, so Easter this year will occur later in the calendar than usual (April 24th). The moon appears near the planet Saturn on March 20th. On March 26th, the moon appears half full in the southern dawn. This is another time to view the moon’s craters, even in the early hours of daylight. On the last day of March (31st), the crescent moon appears near the brilliant planet Venus in the southeastern dawn.

Spring officially begins about sunset on March 20th, when the sun’s direct rays cross the equator, moving North. On March 17th, the days and nights are each 12 hours in length. All through the spring, both the sunrise and sunset points along the horizon drift towards the North. The daily ration of sunlight increases from about 12 hours to 15 hours (end of spring).
On March evenings, the bright winter stars near Orion have shifted to the Southwestern sky. The Big Dipper is now high in the Northern sky, dumping its soup into the Little Dipper below. In the fall, the Little Dipper will dump into the Big Dipper. If you extend the Big Dipper’s handle outward, you come to the bright golden star Arcturus. Further along this arc is Spica, Virgo’s bright star. The brightest evening star is Sirius, seen to the left of Orion’s belt.

On March dawns,  the sky has turned to nearly the opposite direction we face in the early evening. The fall evening stars are then on display. High in the West is the very bright star Vega. The Big Dipper is then close  to the northern horizon and can ‘hold soup’. Low in the Northeast is the bright golden star Capella while low in the Northwest is another bright golden star, Arcturus.

Featured in March at the Frostburg State Planetarium is “How the Ancients Used the Sky” with free public programs on March 6th, 20th and 27th at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. The Planetarium is Tawes 302, just off the front lobby that faces the Compton Science Center. Our programs last about 45 minutes. At 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., Planetarium visitors are invited to tour the Science Discovery Center, that features a fantastic collection of preserved animals from 5 continents. To get a free Planetarium/Discovery Center bookmark through the mail, call (301) 687-7799 and state your name and mailing address.

By Dr. Bob Doyle

To contact Dr. Doyle, his mailing address is Planetarium, Frostburg State University, Frostburg, MD 21532 or by email at rdoyle@frostburg.edu.









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