March Skychart; Northern Hemisphere gazer's guide

All month: While still technically morning ''stars'' (above the horizon at sunrise, but not at sunset), the planets Saturn and Jupiter are beginning to add to the evening-sky scene, even though a bit late. Saturn is now up in the east well before midnight early in March, and it rises about 8:30 toward the end of the month. Jupiter comes up about three hours later. Both are still best during early morning, however, when they are high toward the south.

Note that the moon occults (covers) Jupiter in early March. We can't see this one, but it is only the first in a series of eight occultations involving the bright planet this year, and a number will occur at least partly over North America.

March 1: The moon is only two days past full tonight, rising about 8:30 p.m. among the stars of Virgo, to the right and above its brightest star, Spica. You will find Saturn close to Spica, to its left and much alike in brightness.

March 2-3: The moon is near Saturn tonight, to the planet's west (right) when they rise about 9:30 p.m., swinging past above the planet about 1 a.m. Eastern standard time (EST), and to the planet's east (left) at dawn, close to the border between Virgo and Libra.

March 5-6: The waning gibbous moon takes its whack at Jupiter tonight, sliding past above the planet about 10 p.m. EST, well before moonrise in North America. But the moon passes close enough to cover Jupiter (an occultation) in the sky over northern and eastern Europe, and Asia. The reddish star below Jupiter and the moon is Antares, in Scorpius.

March 6: The last-quarter moon is in the constellation Ophiucus.

March 8: The rather fat, waning crescent moon you see in the sky this morning is in Sagittarius, right about where the peak of the ''teapot's'' dome would be found.

March 9-10: Apogee moon (furthest from earth, on the 9th) is near the border between Sagittarius and Capricornus. Moonrise, after 4 a.m. on the 10th, brings up a slender crescent, probably the last we will see before the new moon.

March 14: New moon is in Pisces, just south of the First Point of Aries (the vernal equinox). The procession of the earth's rotational axis has caused the vernal equinox to shift out of Aries, where it was when the name First Point was given to it long ago, but the name stuck.

March 15-17: Forget about finding Mars on the evening of the 15th. Even though it is in conjunction with the moon shortly after midnight EST, the moon may be too slim and Mars to dim to find in the late twilight. But the moon and Venus on the evening of the 16th are another story. The crescent will be fatter and higher in the sunset, and Venus easily bright enough to be found above it. These two will also be in conjunction about an hour after midnight (early on the 17th), when the moon moves to Venus's east.

March 18: The calendar tells us that the sun doesn't arrive at the vernal equinox and spring commence in the Northern Hemisphere for several more days, but this is the date when there are 12 hours of day and 12 hours of sunlight, according to the tables of sunrise and sunset. Which is correct? Both are, according to the rules we accept for calculating each.

March 20: Spring begins in the Northern Hemisphere today, at least in North America. Since the sun arrives at the vernal equinox (marking the moment when the seasons officially change) at 11:39 p.m. EST, spring begins on the 21st in Europe, where it is after midnight and the date has changed. For that matter, the date falls on the 21st even in parts of North America, eastern Canada, for example, and in Brazil, both having time one hour later than EST!

March 21: First-quarter moon tonight is near the border between Taurus and Gemini, and about midway between Taurus's brightest star Aldebaran (to the right of the moon and lower) and the ''twin'' stars of Gemini, Pollux, and Castor (to the moon's left and higher).

March 23: The moon tonight is in line with and below Pollux (the brighter) and Castor, even though the waxing moon is now in Cancer.

March 25: Perigee moon is very near Regulus, the bright star of Leo. The moon passes the star (conjunction) shortly before midnight EST.

March 27: It's Jupiter's turn to begin its retrograde (westerly) motion. Watch its position relative to Antares, the bright star in Scorpius below the planet, to detect its westerly drift over the next four months.

March 28: The full moon is in Virgo.

March 29: Still in Virgo but one day past full, the moon moves past the star Spica tonight, Saturn tomorrow night. Look for them, twinlike (in brightness), near the moon on both nights, the only starlike objects bright enough to be seen in the moon's glare.

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