Let’s begin with the rare appearance of five planets, all visible to the naked eye on the same night. At the very beginning of March, Mercury, Venus and Jupiter can be seen in the west around sunset; the planet Mars is in the east toward the end of twilight; and Saturn rises, in the east as well, a bit later in the evening. This is an excellent opportunity to view these five, distant worlds — either with the naked eye, binoculars or a small telescope — all within the span of a few hours. Extraordinary! This favourable apparition will last until Mercury disappears into the Sun’s glare around mid-month.
Observers who follow the movement of Venus and Jupiter, from night to night, will likely notice they are approaching each other: Venus moves rapidly, closing the gap between it and Jupiter, which is situated higher in the sky. This chase culminates on the evenings of March 12 and 13, with the most beautiful planetary conjunction of the year. These two objects, the brightest in the sky after the Sun and Moon, will draw attention since they’ll be scarcely three degrees apart. Thereafter, Venus continues to climb, leaving Jupiter behind. At month’s end, Venus approaches the Pleiades, providing a splendid encounter: At the beginning of April, the brilliant planet will be within half-a-degree of the famous star cluster — an event that won’t occur for another eight years…
And here’s another irresistible rendezvous: Tiny Mercury has its best apparition of the year, in the evening sky, during the first two weeks of March. You’ll find the planet a few degrees above the western horizon at sunset. Binoculars will be a definite help in your quest to locate the tiny planet in the glow of twilight.
The planet Mars will be in opposition on March 3, and two days later, on March 5, it will be closer to Earth than at any other time in the next two years. Unfortunately for us, this opposition is far from remarkable: In fact, it’s the least favourable since 1995. Nonetheless, at its peak, Mars will still be spectacular — almost as bright as Jupiter. The Red Planet will rise at sunset, culminate around midnight, and set in the west at sunrise, offering multiple occasions to observe its characteristic orange colour, either with or without a telescope. The next opposition of Mars won’t be until April 2014!
We end our summary with Saturn, the ringed planet, which appears on the eastern horizon, around mid-evening at the beginning of the month, and two hours earlier at month’s end. Currently, Saturn’s rings are fairly inclined, which favours telescopic observation — an opportunity worth taking advantage of! Wait for the planet to culminate in the south before aiming your telescope at it: This will assure the best atmospheric conditions for seeing details in the rings.
Now, a word concerning the Moon: A thin lunar crescent will graze Jupiter, Venus and then the Pleiades, each in turn, about an hour after sunset on the evenings of March 23 to the 26th. Twilight photo-ops are guaranteed!
In closing, remember that we switch to Eastern Daylight Time, at 2 A.M. during the night of March 10 to 11: Clocks and watches need to be advanced one hour. As well, the vernal equinox will occur on March 20 at 1:14 A.M. (that’s EDT, of course!), and that marks the official start of springtime here in the northern hemisphere. It’s also the time year when daylight hours increase rapidly, a sure sign that summer is just around the corner!