Driftless Dark Skies

John Heasley

There is a quickening as we near the Vernal Equinox and the beginning of spring on March 20. We have 12 hours of sunlight, three more than we had back on the Winter Solstice, and there are three minutes more of it every day this month. Even the sunrises and sunsets are speeding up. It takes 30 seconds less for the disk of the sun to move across the horizon on the equinox than on the solstice. And early risers can see a wonderful show in the skies at dawn and dusk.

Look east the morning of March 1 around 6 a.m. to see bright Jupiter low on the horizon with fainter Mercury and then Saturn above and to its right. Keep watching the next morning as Mercury moves closer to Jupiter. By March 5, the two planets are side by side with Mercury to the left of Jupiter. Binoculars will help the view if you have them. And give yourself a cheer because few skywatchers have seen Mercury. Keep watching the following days as the two planets draw apart and Mercury becomes lost in the glow of the rising sun. On the mornings of March 9 and 10, don’t miss the waning crescent moon passing by the three planets. It will be to the right of Saturn on the ninth and to the right of Jupiter on the 10th.

Mars is still bright in the evening sky. Look for it high in the southwest after sunset. As the month begins, it is just below the Pleiades star cluster. It’s a wonderful view and even more spectacular if you have binoculars to bring out the ruddy color of Mars near the bright icy blue stars of the “Seven Sisters.” They will be at their closest on March 4, and you should be able to see them together until March 11. Mars has not been this close to the Pleiades since 2006 and won’t be again until 2038. They only appear close. The sunlight reflected from Mars takes only 14 minutes to reach us, but the starlight from the Pleiades has been traveling since Shakespeare and Galileo were tweens in the 1570s. Keep watching as they glide apart and see the waxing crescent moon below the Pleiades on March 18 and below Mars on March 19. Below them will be the orangish star Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull and a loose V-shaped cluster of stars called the Hyades. Mars and Aldebaran are similar in brightness and color, but Mars does not twinkle and appears to move among the fixed stars. The newest Mars explorer Perseverance landed on Feb. 18. Take a moment to visualize it roving the sandy river delta of Jezero Crater as the Mars Helicopter Ingenuity flies above.  

Spring arrives in Wisconsin on March 20 at 3:37 a.m. You can see the last sunset of winter March 19 around 7:11 p.m. and the first sunrise of spring the next morning around 7:04 a.m. Enjoy the quickening!

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.