Driftless Dark Skies

When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars

— The 5th Dimension, “Age of Aquarius” (1969)

Not sure about the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but I am looking forward to Mars aligning with Jupiter as well as Saturn and the moon this month. As March begins, the three planets are in a tidy line low in the southeast before sunrise. The best time to view in the Driftless is 5-6 a.m. Jupiter is in the middle and is the brightest of the three. Saturn is dimmer than Jupiter, more yellow and about 10 degrees left and below Jupiter. Mars is dimmer than Saturn, more orange and about 10 degrees right and above Jupiter. No worries if you can’t track down your protractor from geometry class to measure the angular separation. Just hold out your closed fist at arm’s length. That’s 10 degrees.
Planets are wanderers moving in front of the “fixed stars.” Watch the next three weeks as Mars’ orbit brings it close to Jupiter. Don’t miss the morning of March 18 when the waning crescent moon joins the three planets for a wonderful gathering. By March 20 and 21, Jupiter aligns with Mars and appears just one degree above it. That’s less than the width of your pinkie held at arm’s length. Then continue watching the rest of the month as Mars draws closer to Saturn. By March 31, Mars aligns with Saturn and appears one degree/pinkie below. You may also notice that Mars is now as bright as Saturn as the distance between Earth and Mars lessens. In just one month, we’ve gone from Saturn-Jupiter-Mars to Mars-Saturn-Jupiter!
As we continue through 2020, these three planets will rise earlier and become more visible in the evening sky. Mars and Earth continue to draw close together and will be at their closest in October when the Red Planet will outshine Jupiter, Saturn and every star. Jupiter and Saturn continue to move closer at a slower pace and are headed toward a Grand Conjunction on Winter Solstice.
If planet-gazing before dawn is not a good match for you this month, be sure to enjoy Venus in the western sky after sunset. On March 28, enjoy our sparkly sister planet and waxing crescent moon together in the west all evening. By the end of the month, Venus appears just below the Pleiades star cluster. Get out your binoculars for the best view and be wowed as Venus passes in front of the “Seven Sisters” the first days of April. Spring arrives 10:50 p.m. March 19. Happy Vernal Equinox!

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador and with the IAU as a Dark Skies Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwestern Wisconsin, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies above.