March marks a turning point in the Earth’s celestial dance. This month, we approach the first equinox of the calendar year, and the seasons officially ‘change’ after the equinox passes. There are also a variety of interesting opportunities to get out and see some of the different objects in our night sky. From opportunities to see many of the planets in our solar system to Messier objects galore, read on for all the night sky events in March to plan for.
Where necessary, we have noted (with 🚨🔭) where you may need binoculars or a telescope to help you get the best view of each celestial event. If you need a telescope to help enjoy this month’s night sky events, we have a guide to the best stargazing telescopes. From the Meade Polaris 130 (under $200) to the Orion Atlas 8 EQ-G GoTo ($2000), you can find one for your astronomy interest and budget.
Read on for the best March night sky events to plan your month of stargazing.
March 6 – Close Approach of the Moon & M44
To kick off the month’s astronomical events, head out on the night of March 6th. On this night, M44 (the Beehive Cluster) and the Moon will pass within 1°23′ of each other. This close approach will occur in the daylight hours for most people; you can still try to spot M44 after sunset.
The Beehive Cluster is an open star cluster in the constellation of Cancer. It’s one of the closest star clusters to earth and looks like a small cloudy nebula to the unaided eye. With a pair of binoculars or a telescope, the individual stars of the Beehive Cluster pop into view.
Unfortunately, the Moon will be approaching the Full phase and will be 88% illuminated. This may interfere with visibility if you try and observe M44 right at the moment of closest approach.
March 14 – Peak of the γ-Normid Meteor Shower
After passing the full moon on March 9th, the rest of March offers a number of great night sky events – starting with the peak of the γ-Normid meteor shower on March 14th.
This meteor shower runs from February 25th through March 28th, but astronomers predict that the night of greatest activity will occur on the 14th. On this night, you can expect to see up to six meteors per hour. While the γ-Normids aren’t one of the major meteors showers in the year, viewers in the southern hemisphere can enjoy trying to spot meteors as they radiate from the constellation Norma.
March 18 – Close Approach of Moon, Mars, Jupiter & Saturn
If your skies are clear on the night of March 18th, it’s a fantastic day to get out and spot the moon as it passes three of our planetary neighbors: first Mars, then Jupiter, then Saturn. We’ll cover each in turn to help you enjoy what you can see.
(Actually, Mars and Jupiter will have their closest approaches to the moon in the early morning hours of the 18th, so you have two opportunities to see all of these close approaches.)
First, Mars will make its closest approach with the moon, passing within 0°44′ of each other and easily visible together with a pair of binoculars.
About 90 minutes later, the moon, Jupiter, and Mars will all appear close together, within 1°30′ of each other. You can use a telescope to jump between the three easily.
Then, in the post-sunset dusk on the night of the 18th, Saturn and the moon will pass within 2°05′ of each other; these two can be seen together with a pair of binoculars too.
Throughout this time, the moon will be between 24%-29% illuminated – a bit bright but not so much that it will interfere with your ability to see the planets in its vicinity.
March 20 – Mercury Reaches Highest Point in the Morning Sky
Little Mercury is hard to spot – it’s always so close to the sun that its often impossible to see through the sun’s luminosity. However, at some points through the year, you can see Mercury when its furthest from the sun in its orbit based on our perspective.
March 20th is one such day; in the pre-dawn hours you can watch Mercury rise above the horizon before the sun. You’ll need to have a clear view of the eastern horizon with no obstructions (including mountains or other landmasses) to try and spot the smallest planet.
March 20 – Close Approach of Jupiter & Mars
If you missed viewing Jupiter and Mars on the morning of the 18th due to clouds or other reasons, try again on March 20th. In the pre-dawn hours on this day, Jupiter and Mars will pass within 0°42′ of each other – perfectly placed to spot the two with a pair of binoculars or planet-hop between them with a telescope.
March 21 – March Equinox
The March Equinox on March 21st is not a night sky event per se, but it’s worth noting on your calendar because it marks the changing of seasons. In the northern hemisphere, winter will officially end and spring will begin; in the southern hemisphere, summer will end and autumn will begin.
From a celestial perspective, the March Equinox marks the point on the Earth’s annual orbit when everywhere on Earth has almost exactly 12 hours of day and night. “Equinox” means “equal night,” so this makes perfect sense. The perfect balance between day and night occurs because of the distance and angles between the sun and the Earth at its 23.5° tilt.
Some archaeoastronomers have studied sites around the world that seem to be built to mark the equinoxes. One example is Chichen Itza in Mexico. On the equinoxes, a shadow appears on the main pyramid (which is dedicated to the deity Kukulkan/Quetzalcoatl) which shows a snake sliding down the staircase. It is believed that the pyramid was built specifically so this phenomenon would occur, as the feathered serpent Kukulkan/Quetzalcoatl joins the heavens, Earth and the underworld, day and night in Maya beliefs.
March 23 – Close Approach of Mars & Pluto
Continuing the month of planetary viewing opportunities, March 23rd is a chance to see distant Pluto. (Okay, technically a dwarf planet, we know.)
In the pre-dawn hours of March 23rd, Mars and Pluto will have an exceptionally close approach: they’ll pass within 0°01′ of one another. This is close enough to view within the view of a telescope, and you’ll need one to see far away Pluto.
March 24 – Run the Messier Marathon
Have you ever heard of the Messier Marathon? This is an opportunity to try and see all 110 Messier objects in a single night… yes, it’s an ambitious prospect!
The March new moon on the 24th is the best time to do the Marathon, but if you can’t spend the whole night stargazing mid-week, other good dates are Saturday, March 21st or Saturday, March 28th. If you’re really keen to try it, research if your local astronomy club will be hosting an event for die-hard stargazers like you!
Here’s a guide on how to run the Messier Marathon in 2020.
March 25 – Venus Reaches Highest Point in the Evening Sky
The final planet that makes an appearance in March is Venus, though it’s not really making an appearance at this point. If you haven’t noticed yet, Venus has been putting on a show over the past several months.
On the night of March 25th after sunset, Venus will reach its highest point above the western horizon – it will be 45° above the horizon, so as long as the skies are clear you should see Venus blazing in the sky.
March 31 – Close Approach of Saturn & Mars
More planets! To round out our list of March night sky events, Saturn and Mars will make a close approach during the day on March 31st. Once the sun sets, you can spot the two near each other – they won’t be quite as close as their 0°54′ apparent distance midday but they’ll still be near enough to make a fun target for binoculars or hopping between them with a telescope.
Have questions about these March night sky events? Let us know in the comments!
Featured photo credit: Hannah Schwalbe for NPS via Flickr