This will be an every-two-months guide to what you can see in the night sky, geared to mid-latitude northern hemisphere observers. The original post with more detailed guidance can be found here. What can you expect to see in March and April 2014?
Daylight Saving Time: March is one of the two months of the year in which we have to account for this abomination. Since the 15th of the month comes after the Congressionally determined switch back to standard time, the times are all Eastern Standard. Don’t get me started.
Moon Phases: New on March 1st and March 30th ; full on March 16th
Planets: Jupiter continues to dominate the early evening sky in the far western reaches of Gemini. Although he is traveling a little farther east each night relative to the background stars around him, Earth’s orbital path around the sun puts those background stars a little farther west each night, at a faster pace than Jupiter’s motion. The net result is that Jupiter will be quite low in the west in a few months–but not for a while!
Neither Mars nor Saturn show on the chart, but you should know that Mars rises around 11 pm in mid-month, and Saturn about two hours after that.
We need to give a nod to Venus, impossible to miss in the morning sky before sunrise. Because Venus is an inferior planet (it orbits closer to the Sun than does Earth), it goes through phases similar to the Moon’s. But because, unlike the Moon, Venus varies considerably in its distance from us, its apparent size in each phase is noticeably different. This should help you see why.
The combination of a larger disc with less of it being illuminated means there is a point where Venus appears brightest.
That took place on February 11th, but Venus is still plenty bright. Any time I am asked about a really bright object in the east before sunrise, or in the west after sunset, the answer is almost always Venus.
Meteor Showers: None visible from the northern hemisphere.
Deep Sky: Many of the sights mentioned in January and February are still visible, just shifted farther west. If you want a real challenge (this would require binoculars on a tripod or, better yet, a telescope), see if you can spot a pair of relatively nearby galaxies, M81 and M82. They aren’t mapped on the charts, but they are very near the asterism of the Big Dipper, and this should help you locate them. Your quest will be much easier if you look when the Moon is out of the sky.
And here is a wide-angle telescopic view that shows them both.
M81 is the large spiral galaxy just below and to the right of center.
Vernal (Spring) Equinox: At noon EST on March 20th, the sun passes directly over the Earth’s equator on its way into our northern celestial hemisphere. This is the official start of spring in the northern hemisphere and autumn in the southern half of Earth. Day and night are everywhere the same length, hence equi-nox. And no, there is nothing special about this day that allows you to balance an egg on its end. Another urban myth destroyed!
Looking south, 10 pm, March 15th.
Looking north, 10 pm, March 15th.
Moon Phases: Full on April 15th; new on April 29th
Planets: Jupiter continues its slow slide to the west, and is still in the sky until it sets around 2 am in mid-April. But the real star of this month is Mars. It reaches opposition (directly opposite the Sun in our sky) on April 8th, so that it is in the sky all night long.
A Mars opposition occurs roughly every 26 months. Since Mars is farther from the Sun, it moves more slowly and takes longer to complete one orbit; one Martian year is 687 Earth days. We will pass Mars on our faster “inside track” this month, and it will take us another 26 months to catch up to it again. Opposition is the point in their orbits when Mars and the Earth are closest to each other. But not all Mars oppositions are created equal. Mars’ orbit is very eccentric, meaning that its distance from the Sun varies quite a bit. If we encounter Mars near its perihelion (point closest to the Sun), it appears quite large in our sky as it did in the historic August 2003 opposition. The 2014 opposition is nearer aphelion (point most distant from the Sun), so it doesn’t appear as large in a telescope. But it is quite bright, and noticeably red-orange in color.
Saturn rises a couple of hours after Mars, a little earlier each night. More about Saturn in the May/June guide.
Meteor Showers: The Lyrids peak on the night of April 22/23, but they should be visible a few nights before and after. A shower’s radiant is the point from which the meteors appear to originate; the best time to see any meteor shower is between midnight and dawn.
Deep Sky: There is a beautiful group of three spiral galaxies visible in even a small telescope, and in binoculars mounted on a tripod on a dark night with good seeing. The Leo Triplet galaxies all are roughly the same apparent size, and this is because they actually are physically close to each other at about 35 million light years away. Here is where to look for them at 10 pm in mid-April, facing south. I’ve targeted M66, one of the three, but they are all close together.
And here is what they look like in a telescope larger than any of my readers are likely to possess!
This is the time of year when dedicated deep sky observers strive to complete the Messier Marathon. Click on the link for more information.
Facing south, 10 pm, April 15th