The Evening Sky in March 2016
Download a PDF containing this chart, additional charts for specific areas of the sky and descriptions of interesting objects visible at this time of year.
The Evening Sky in March 2016
Golden Jupiter appears in the east at dusk, the brightest 'star' in the sky. At midnight it is due north. By dawn it is low in the west. Bright stars are overhead and down into the southeast evening sky.
Jupiter is the biggest planet by far. Its mass is greater than all the other planets put together. Any telescope shows Jupiter's disk with its four bright 'Galilean' moons lined up on either side. Sometimes one or two moons can be seen in binoculars, looking like faint stars close to the planet. Jupiter is 660 million km from us in March. The Moon is near Jupiter on the 21st and 22nd.
Northwest of overhead is Sirius. It is the brightest true star in the sky but fainter than Jupiter. Southwest of the zenith is Canopus, the second brightest star. Below Sirius are bluish Rigel and orange Betelgeuse, the brightest stars in Orion. Between them is a line of three stars: Orion's belt. To southern hemisphere star watchers, the line of stars makes the bottom of 'The Pot'. Orion's belt points down and left to a V-shaped pattern of stars. This makes the face of Taurus the Bull, upside down to us. The orange star Aldebaran is at one tip of the V. 'Aldebaran' is Arabic for the eye of the bull. Continuing the line from Orion down and left finds the Pleiades or Matariki star cluster. It is about 440 light-years away.
Sirius is the brightest star both because it is relatively close, nine light years* away, and 23 times brighter than the sun. Rigel is a bluish supergiant star, 40 000 times brighter than the sun and much hotter. It is 800 light years away. Orange Betelgeuse is a red-giant star, cooler than the sun but much bigger and 9000 times brighter. It is 400 light years from us.
Near the north skyline are Pollux and Castor marking the heads of Gemini the twins. Above and right of them is the star cluster Praesepe, marking the shell of Cancer the crab. Praesepe is also called the Beehive cluster, the reason obvious when it is viewed in binoculars. It is some 500 light years from us.
Crux, the Southern Cross, is in the southeast. Below it are Beta and Alpha Centauri, often called 'The Pointers'. Alpha Centauri is the closest naked-eye star, 4.3 light years away. Beta Centauri, like most of the stars in Crux, is a blue-giant star hundreds of light years away. Canopus is also a very luminous distant star; 13 000 times brighter than the sun and 300 light years away.
The Milky Way is brightest in the southeast toward Crux. It becomes broader lower in the southeast toward Scorpius. Above Crux the Milky Way can be traced to nearly overhead where it fades. It becomes very faint in the north, right of Orion.
The Clouds of Magellan, LMC and SMC are high in the south sky, easily seen by eye on a dark moonless night. They are two small galaxies about 160 000 and 200 000 light years away.
Mars and Saturn (not shown on the chart) appear in the late night sky. Mars rises after 11 pm, a little south of due east. It looks like an orange-red star. Well to its right is the star Antares, also orange but a bit fainter than Mars. 'Antares' is Greek for 'rival to Mars'. Now Mars is brighter than its rival and will continue to brighten as we catch up on it. Over the month Mars will move down and right as it passes Antares.
Saturn is directly below Antares, looking like an off-white star a little brighter than Antares. Saturn stays put through March, rising a little earlier each night. A telescope magnifying 20x shows Saturn's rings. By the end of the month Mars, Antares and Saturn make a large triangle in the east at 11p.m.
Venus, the brightest planet, rises due east around dawn. At the beginning of the month Mercury is below and right of Venus. Mercury slips lower as it moves to the other side of the sun. It disappears mid-month.
A total solar eclipse occurs on March 9 but is not seen from New Zealand. The moon's shadow crosses Indonesia and the western Pacific. On March 23-24 the full moon grazes the edge of the Earth's shadow. Around midnight the top edge of the Moon will look a little darker than the lower edge.
*A light year (l.y.)is the distance that light travels in one year: nearly 10 million million km or 1013 km. Sunlight takes eight minutes to get here; moonlight about one second. Sunlight reaches Neptune, the outermost major planet, in four hours. It takes four years to reach the nearest star, Alpha Centauri.