The solar system in March 2016

Dates and times shown are NZDT (UT + 13 Hours) unless otherwise stated. Rise and set times are for Wellington. They will vary by a few minutes elsewhere in NZ.

Sunrise, sunset and twilight times in March

                        March  1  NZDT                   March 31  NZDT
                    morning  evening                 morning  evening
       SUN: rise:   6.59am,  set:  8.06pm    rise:   7.33am,  set:  7.16pm
Twilights
  Civil:    starts: 6.34am,  ends: 8.32pm    starts: 7.09am,  ends: 7.42pm
  Nautical: starts: 6.00am,  ends: 9.06pm    starts: 6.36am,  ends: 8.17pm 
  Astro:    starts: 5.25am,  ends: 9.41pm    starts: 6.03am,  ends: 8.46pm

March PHASES OF THE MOON (times as shown by GUIDE)

          Last quarter:  March  2 at 12.11 pm (Mar  1, 23:11 UT)
  New moon:      March  9 at  2.55 pm (01:55 UT)
  First quarter: March 16 at  6.03 am (Mar 15, 17:03 UT) 
  Full moon:     March 24 at  1.01 am (Mar 23, 12:01 UT) 
  Last quarter   April  1 at  4.17 am (Mar 31, 15:17 UT)

ECLIPSES in March

March 9: Total eclipse of the Sun. The path of totality crosses southern Sumatra soon after sunrise then crosses southern Borneo and the Celebes. It then heads east and northeast across the Pacific to end at sunset to the north of Hawaii. The maximum length of totality is 4 minutes 9 seconds. A partial eclipse is visible from most of southeast Asia including Japan and from most of Alaska. In the south a partial eclipse is visible from Australia except the south and southeast. A map showing the path is available on the RASNZ web site.

March 23/24: A partial penumbral eclipse of the moon. At maximum only part of the moon passes into the penumbra of the Earth's shadow. No part is totally eclipsed. The decrease in brightness of the moon will be small and it is unlikely any change will be noticed by eye. The eclipse starts at 10.39 pm NZDT, maximum eclipse is at 12.47 am, the eclipse ends at 2.55 am NZDT. The moon is visible throughout the eclipse in New Zealand and in Australia except the start in Western Australia.

The planets in March

Jupiter is at opposition on March 8 so will be visible all evening by the end of the month. Mars will rise late evening, it and the other planets are in the morning sky. By the end of the month Mercury will have disappeared while Saturn will rise before midnight.

Mercury rises about 90 minutes before the Sun on March 1st. 45 minutes before sunrise the planet, magnitude -0.3, will be some 8.5° above the horizon in a direction a little to the south of east. Mercury will be 9° below and slightly to the right of Venus.

Mercury will steadily close in on the Sun during the first 3 weeks of March. By the 11th, now at magnitude -0.7, the planet will be only a couple of degrees up 45 minutes before sunrise. It will still be a few degrees below Venus.

On March 24, Mercury will be at superior conjunction. At conjunction the planet will be 202 million km from the Earth and some 53 million km beyond the Sun. At this conjunction it will pass to the south of the Sun, their minimum separation appearing to be just over 1 degree.

After conjunction Mercury will become an evening object setting after the Sun. By the 31st it will set about half an hour later, so is not likely to be visible despite its -1.6 magnitude.

Venus rises nearly 2 hours before the Sun on March 1, reducing to 90 minutes earlier on the 31st. As a result the planet will remain easily visible low in the dawn sky all month. It starts the month in Capricornus but moves into Aquarius on the 11th. On the morning of the 21st, Venus will be half a degree to the right of Neptune. This May give an opportunity to find Neptune using binoculars.

On the morning of March 7 the 7% lit crescent moon will be 8.5° to the upper left of Venus. By the following morning the moon will be only 2.4% lit and 6.8° below Venus. Also Mercury will be 6° to the right of and a little lower than the moon.

Mars rises close to 11 pm on the 1st advancing to 9:45 pm by the 31st so will then be visible to the east late evening. It will also brighten during the month from magnitude 0.3 to -0.5 as the distance between Earth and Mars decreases.

The planet starts March in Libra but moves on into Scorpius on March 13. By the 31st Mars will be 6° from Scorpius and considerably brighter than its rival star.

The moon makes a close approach to Mars on the night of February 29/March 1 At midnight the 64% lit waning moon will 5.5 degrees to the left of Mars. Six hours later the moon, now 62% lit will be 4 below the planet.

A second close approach of the moon to Mars occurs on the night of 28/29 March. For New Zealand viewers the two are closest shortly before dawn when the 78% lit moon will be 4.8 degrees below Mars.

Jupiter is at opposition on March 10, so will then be visible all night. At opposition Jupiter will be 663.5 million km (4.435 AU) from the Earth and nearly another 150 million km further from the Sun.

By the end of the month Jupiter will rise an hour before the Sun making it well placed for viewing by the time the sky darkens. The planet will be in Leo moving to the west. The almost full moon will be a few degrees from Jupiter on the 22nd. Early evening the two will be 3 degrees apart with the moon to the right of Jupiter. Their distance apart will increase during the rest of the night as the moon moves away from the planet.

Saturn begins to move into the evening sky during March. At the start of the month it rises just after midnight, by the end it will rise at 10.20 pm. The planet is in Ophiuchus all month about 9° from Antares and, at the end of March, a similar distance from Mars.

The north pole of Saturn is tilted at an angle of over 26 degrees towards the Earth. The ring system is consequently wide open and readily visible in a small telescope.

The moon passes Saturn twice during the month. On the morning of March 3 the 43% lit moon will be 6 degrees below Saturn at about 4 am, the distance apart increasing to 7 degrees shortly before sunrise. For NZ viewers the two bodies will be closer on the morning of March 30 with the two less than 4 degrees apart at 4 am. Late evening shortly after they rise, the two will 4.5 degrees apart.

Outer planets

Uranus remains in Pisces during March at magnitude 5.9. It sets just after 8.30 pm, 90 minutes after the Sun, on the 1st. So it will be low by the time the sky darkens. By the end of March the planet will set only 20 minutes after the Sun.

Neptune moves up into the dawn sky during March. At first it will rise only 40 minutes before the Sun, increasing to a good 2.5 hours by the end of the month.

The planet is in Aquarius, magnitude 8.0. As Neptune moves up in the sky it will be passed by Venus. On the morning of March 21 the two will be only half a degree apart with Venus to the right of Neptune, the latter slightly lower. There will be no stars brighter than Neptune between the two, although the magnitude 3.7 star lambda Aqr will be 1.5 degrees below it. The window of opportunity to see Neptune in binoculars close to Venus will be fairly short between the time Venus becomes visible and the sky getting too bright to see Neptune.

On the previous morning, the 20th, Venus will be just over a degree above Neptune and on the 22nd it will be a similar distance to the lower right of the faint planet. On the 19th and 23rd the separation will be about 2.5 degrees.

Pluto continues to be in Sagittarius, magnitude 14.4. On the 1st it will be half a degree below the 2.9 magnitude star pi Sgr. At 6 am they will about 37 degrees above the horizon and almost due east. By the end of March the two will be almost a degree apart with Pluto to the lower right of the star

Minor planets

(1) Ceres starts the month only 8 degrees from the Sun. Conjunction is on March 4 after which Ceres will become a morning object.

By the 31st Ceres will rise 90 minutes before the Sun, just before Venus. Ceres at magnitude 9.1 will be almost 7 degrees to the right of the brighter planet.

(4) Vesta, magnitude 8.4, starts March in Pisces, moves into Cetus on the 13th and on into Aries the last day of the month. It is an evening object setting at 10.15 pm on the 1st. By the 31st it will set 90 minutes after the Sun.

The crescent moon will be 5.5 degrees to the right of Vesta on March 12.

Brian Loader  
New Zealand