By John Heasley
All five visible planets are gathering in the morning skies this month. As March begins, look southeast where the sky is just beginning to brighten around 5 a.m. to see two pairings of planets. Venus will be the most brilliant and easiest to find rising more than two hours before the sun. Mars is dimmer and more amber in color about three fingers below Venus. To the right of this pair low in the southern sky you should be able to trace out the shape of the Scorpion with the reddish star Antares as its heart. Between the Scorpion and Venus, enjoy the glow of our Milky Way streaming across the sky. To the left of Venus, higher in the eastern sky, are the three bright stars of the Summer Triangle: Deneb, Vega and Altair. We are getting a preview of the stars of summer evenings in the mornings of spring. Keep watching for the second pairing of planets, Saturn and Mercury, as they rise in the east. They should be visible by around 6 a.m. Saturn is to the left of Mercury on the first and then above it on the following days just the width of a finger apart as the sky brightens and the stars and planets fade from view.
The view slowly shifts by mid-March. We spring ahead an hour on the 13th. Venus and Mars are at their closest on the Ides of March on the 15th and Mercury is no longer visible. We mark the Vernal Equinox on the 20th as our hemisphere moves from winter to spring at 10:33 a.m. On the 24th and 25th, the three remaining planets form an isosceles triangle with Venus at the apex. Thanks, high school geometry teachers! If you’re not much of a morning person and want to pick just one day this month for planet watching, set your alarm for the 28th. Look southeast around 6 a.m. for a spectacular view of Saturn, Venus and Mars forming a very compact right triangle with the waning crescent moon hanging below them. Keep watching as the sky brightens to see bright Jupiter rising in the east around 6:30. You just saw five worlds before sunrise!
Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn will be morning planets for the rest of the spring before moving to the evening sky later in the year. The moon passes by them again on April 24-27 and May 22-27. Jupiter aligns with Venus on April 30 and with Mars on May 29. If “Age of Aquarius’’ by The 5th Dimension holds true, then peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars. Hope you enjoy the dawning of spring in the good company of our neighboring worlds.
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, with the IAU as a Dark Skies Ambassador, and with International Dark-Sky Association as an Advocate. 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.