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

the solar system in February 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 February

                            February  1  NZDT                February 29  NZDT
                    morning  evening                 morning  evening
       SUN: rise:   6.23am,  set:  8.44pm    rise:   6.58am,  set:  8.07pm
Twilights
  Civil:    starts: 5.55am,  ends: 9.13pm    starts: 6.32am,  ends: 8.34pm
  Nautical: starts: 5.17am,  ends: 9.51pm    starts: 5.58am,  ends: 9.07pm 
  Astro:    starts: 4.34am,  ends:10.33pm    starts: 5.23am,  ends: 9.43pm

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

          Last quarter:  February  1 at  4.28 pm (03:28 UT)
  New moon:      February  9 at  3.39 am (Feb  8, 14:39 UT)
  First quarter: February 15 at  8.47 pm (07:47 UT) 
  Full moon:     February 23 at  7.20 am (Feb 22, 18:20 UT)

The planets in February

Jupiter will be in the sky from soon after sunset by the end of February. The other planets remain objects of the morning sky. Venus and Mercury are a close pair in the dawn sky and will be an interesting to watch as their distance apart vary during the month. The asteroid (5) Astraea is at a particularly good opposition mid February.

Mercury and VENUS form a pair of planets rather low in the dawn sky throughout February. At the beginning of the month both planets will be in Sagittarius. During February they move into Capricornus, Mercury on the 14th and Venus 3 mornings later.

On the morning of the 1st, Mercury rises almost 2 hours before the Sun, with Venus rising some 35 minutes earlier. Mercury will be half a degree below the 2.9 magnitude star pi Sgr, with Venus some 7 degrees above Mercury.

During the first half of February Venus will close in on Mercury until the two are some 4 degrees apart mid month. After that as Mercury's rate of motion increases it will draw further ahead of Venus until the two are again 7 degrees apart by the end of the month. Mercury will remain a few degrees below Venus and a little to its right all month.

Mercury's magnitude brightens from 0.1 to -0.3 during February. It reaches its greatest elongation, 26 degrees west of the Sun on the 7th. By the end of February Mercury rises some 95 minutes before the Sun, with Venus rising half an hour earlier. An hour before sunrise, Mercury will be only 6 degrees above the horizon

Mars rises half an hour after midnight on the 1st advancing to 11:45 pm by the 29th. The planet is in Libra, near the wide binary star alpha Lib at the beginning of the month. The two are closest on the 2nd when Mars, magnitude 0.8, will be a degree below the pair, with the 45% lit moon 4.5 degrees lower than Mars. For the rest of the month Mars makes its way eastwards through Libra but doesn't pass close to any bright stars.

At midnight on the 29th February the moon will again be near Mars, some 5.5 degrees from the planet which will have brightened to magnitude 0.3. A few hours later, on the morning of March 1, the two will be 4 degrees apart

Jupiter is in Leo during February. On the 1st it rises about 10.20 pm, by the end of February it will rise almost 2 hours earlier, some 15 minutes after the Sun sets, so the planet should be readily visible by mid evening.

In the late evening of February 24, the almost full moon will be 4 degrees to the left of Jupiter; their separation increases to 6.5 degrees a little before sunrise the following morning when Jupiter will appear below the moon.

Saturn rises shortly after 2 am on the 1st and 20 minutes after midnight on the 29th. So it is still a morning object. The planet is in Ophiuchus about 8 degrees below Antares, as seen in the morning sky. At magnitude 0.5, Saturn is a little brighter than the star.

On the morning of February 4, the 26% lit moon will be 4 degrees to the lower left of Saturn

Outer planets

Uranus remains in Pisces during February at magnitude 5.9. It is an evening object setting just before 11.30 pm on the 1st and just after 8.30 pm, 90 minutes after the Sun, on the 29th.

Neptune, in Aquarius, sets about 70 minutes after the Sun on February 1. It is at conjunction with the Sun on the 29th. At conjunction Neptune will be half a degree south of the Sun as seen from Earth. The planet will then be 4.63 billion km, 30.95 AU, from Earth and 29.95 AU beyond the Sun.

Pluto continues to be in Sagittarius throughout February at magnitude 14.4. It is close to Mercury at the beginning of the month, the two separated by just over half a degree on the 1st. Five nights later Venus will be just over 1 degree from Pluto. These close approached will occur close to the star pi Sgr, magnitude 2.9. Pluto is less than 6 arc-minutes from the star on the 14th. At magnitude 14.4 a moderate telescope is needed to see, or image, the dwarf planet. Low altitude and dawn twilight will make this very difficult.

A better chance of finding Pluto close by pi Sgr will occur in June when Pluto's retrograde motion takes it less than 3 arc minutes from the star.

BRIGHTER ASTEROIDS: (1) Ceres is in Aquarius during February but getting close to the Sun. By the 29th the two will be only 8 degrees apart.

(4) Vesta, magnitude 8.3, starts February in Cetus. On the 1st, Vesta will set just before midnight. Early in the month the asteroid is just over 5 degrees from Uranus. On the 12th Vesta joins Uranus in Pisces but their distance apart will gradually increase. By February 29 Vesta will set about 10.20 pm.

(5) Astraea. This 125 km diameter asteroid is in Leo and starts February at magnitude 9.3. On the 1st it will rise at 9.19 pm at Wellington. The asteroid will then be just over half a degree above Regulus, mag 1.4, with no other star as bright as Astraea between the two. This will make finding Astraea fairly easy in the late evening.

Astraea is at opposition mid February with a magnitude 8.7. By then it will be some 3 degrees left of Regulus as seen late evening. At opposition it will be 2.086 AU from the Sun, very close to its perihelion, and 1.1 AU from Earth. The relatively close approach makes this a particularly favourable opposition for observation.

By the end of February, Astraea will be back to magnitude 9.3

Brian Loader  
New Zealand