The Night Sky This Month: March 2020

March Equinox
Image Credit: farmersalmanac.com

The artist’s impression above shows the Sun rising directly over the equator on the equinoxes. This year, the Vernal Equinox occurs on the 19th of March, which is the earliest Vernal Equinox in 124 years.

It is also interesting to note that although the seasons are assumed to start and end at exactly 90-degree intervals in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, which would make the seasons equally long, spring and winter are getting shorter by 60 seconds and 30 seconds per year respectively, while summer and autumn are getting longer by corresponding times every year.

In fact, winter is expected to be only 88.71 days long by the year 3500 AD, at which time its duration will start to increase again as the result of the shift in Earth’s orbit around the Sun.

Moon Phases In March 2020

Note that the March 9th Full Moon will be a Super Moon, the second Super Moon of 2020. The third and last Super Moon of 2020 will occur on April 8th. There will also be significant Earthshine visible during the waning crescent Moon between the 17th and the 23rd of the month, and again during waxing crescent Moon from the 25th to the end of the month.

First Quarter
Full Moon
Third Quarter
New Moon
March 2nd March 9th March 16th March 24th

The Planets in March 2020

The month of March does not offer much in the way of planetary observing, even if the weather permits. Nonetheless, for observers that are willing to make the most of the scant opportunities during the month, here is what to expect-

Mercury is still too close to the Sun throughout the month to be visible

Venus still dominates the twilight sky in the south-west, and will gain some elevation every night until the 24th, when it will reach is highest possible elevation of about 40 degrees above the horizon at sunset. Note that although Venus’ angular diameter increases during the month from 18.8 seconds of arc, to 25.2 seconds of arc, its brightness will increase only marginally because its illumination decreases from 63% to only 48%, at which time it will shine at magnitude -4.5.

Mars is still visible in the south-eastern sky as a predawn object as the month starts. During the first days of March the Red Planet will rise at about 04:30AM (GMT), but it will rise to only about 8 degrees above the horizon about 90 minutes later. Look for the planet shining at magnitude +1.1 just to the leftward of the “lid” of the Teapot asterism in the constellation Sagittarius. Note that although Mars’ angular diameter will have increased to 6.5 seconds of arc by month’s end, it’s low elevation will make it almost impossible to discern any surface detail with small telescopes.

Jupiter rises about 90 minutes before the Sun at the start of the month, but note that Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn will all rise within about an hour of each other. Also, note that although Jupiter’s angular diameter increases slightly from 34.2 seconds of arc to 36.9 seconds of arc, and its magnitude increases to -2.1, its low elevation of less than ten degrees will make it difficult to get clear views of the planet through the atmospheric haze.

Saturn starts the month rising at 05:30AM, about 30 minutes or so after Jupiter, but it will rise progressively earlier until it rises at about 04:42AM by month’s end. Note also that its elevation of less than ten degrees above the horizon will, like Jupiter, make it difficult to get clear views of the planet.

Meteor Showers in March 2020

No significant meteor activity is expected to occur during the month.

Deep Sky Objects to Look For in March 2020

Constellations that are prominent in the sky at this time of the year include Taurus, Orion, Leo, and Ursa Major. Less prominent constellations include Gemini, Cancer, Auriga, and Canis Minor. Most of these constellations contain deep sky objects that are easy targets for binoculars and small telescopes, such as the few examples described below-

The Trapezium

The Trapezium
Image credit: NASA, ESA, Hubble

The famous Trapezium stars are visible in left pane as four bright pink light sources, and as four bright, albeit over-exposed objects in the right pane. The four stars are closely related, and it is their combined light that lights up most, if not all of the Orion Nebula. In fact, the brightest of the four Trapezium stars, Theta-1 Orionis C, is one of the brightest stars known to exist, no doubt due to its 45,500K surface temperature, which is also the highest of any known star that is visible without optical aid.

NGC 1410 and NGC 1409

NGC 1410 and NGC 1409
Image credit: NASA, William C. Keel

Located about 300 million light years away in the constellation Taurus, this pair of galaxies with NGC 1410 on the left and NGC 1409 on the right, is probably the best known example of mass transfer between two galaxies that are not in direct contact with each other.

In this example, the two galaxies are separated by a distance of at least 20,000 light years, but despite this distance, large volumes of gas and dust are being funneled from NGC 1410 to NGC 1409 via a “pipeline” that can be seen as the dark dust lane that begins inside NGC 1410, and extends across space to curl around NGC 1409. The bright blue spots in NGC 1410 are enormous and extremely active star forming regions that are sustained by a constant influx of material through the pipeline.

Messier 37

M37
Image credit: Ole Nielsen

Located about 4,500 light years away in the Auriga constellation, M37 is the most densely populated open star cluster in the constellation, containing as it does, about 500 confirmed member stars. The cluster is also the largest object that lies closest to the point that is opposite the center of the Milky Way Galaxy as seen from our perspective.  It is interesting to note that the cluster’s collective abundance of heavy elements is generally believed to be slightly higher than that of the Sun.

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