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The Sky of March

Dr. Wayne Wooten
Professor of Astronomy
Escambia Amateur Astronomers' Association

For March 2008, the Moon will be a waning crescent as the month begins. The waning crescent moon is passing about 4 degrees south of Jupiter on March 3rd. The crescent moon passes just south of the close pairing of brighter Venus and Mercury above it in the dawn on March 5th. The new moon occurs on March 7th. The next two weeks find the moon waxing in the evening sky. First quarter moon sits high in the sky and half-lit at sunset on March 14th. The Waxing gibbous moon will be just two degrees north of red Mars on March 16th. The gibbous moon sits 2.5 degrees south of Saturn on March 19th. The full moon on March 21th is special, for it is the Paschal Moon, following the Vernal Equinox at 11:48 PM on March 19th, and making the following Sunday Easter. This is about as early in the year as Easter can come. Had the Full Moon been on the 18th for instance, we would have had to wait another month for Easter in late April!

While the naked eye, dark adapted by several minutes away from any bright lights, is a wonderful instrument to stare up into deep space, far beyond our own Milky Way, binoculars are better for spotting specific deep sky objects. For a detailed map of northern hemisphere skies, about March 1st visit the website and download the map for the new month; it will have a more extensive calendar, and list of best objects for the naked eyes, binoculars, and scopes on the back of the map. Also available as the next month begins is wonderful video exploring the March 2008 sky, featuring many different objects, available from the Hubble Space Telescope website at:

Venus and Mercury play tag in the morning twilight, with Mercury highest to the upper right of Venus on March 3rd, but passing Venus on March 24th; both will be low in the east just before dawn. Jupiter dominates the morning sky, the brightest object well up in the southeast.

Red Mars is high overhead as darkness falls; it is much more distant and fainter than back near opposition last Christmas. It is now moving eastward through southern Gemini in March.

On February 24, we passed between Saturn and the Sun, so Saturn rose at opposition in the east in Leo, coming up at sunset and staying up all night. As we are then closest to the ringed wonder, this is the best time to observe the most beautiful object in the sky. When viewed with a telescope, this year the rings will be even more narrow than in this photo taken by EAAA member Bob Gaskin last May. In 2010, at Saturn's equinox, the edge on rings are so narrow they will disappear with most telescopes for several weeks.

The constellation Cassiopeia makes a striking W in the NW. South of Cassiopeia is Andromeda's hero, Perseus. Between him and Cassiopeia is the fine Double Cluster, faintly visible with the naked eye and two fine binocular objects in the same field. Perseus contains the famed eclipsing binary star Algol, where the Arabs imagined the eye of the gorgon Medusa would lie. It fades to a third its normal brightness for six out of every 70 hours, as a larger but cooler orange giant covers about 80% of the smaller but hotter and thus brighter companion as seen from Earth. At Perseus' feet for the famed Pleiades cluster; they lie about 400 light years distant, and over 250 stars are members of this fine group. East of the seven sisters is the "V" of stars marking the face of Taurus the Bull, with bright orange Aldebaran as his eye. The "V" of stars is the Hyades cluster, older than the blue Pleaides, but about half their distance. Yellow Capella, a giant star the same temperature and color as our much smaller Sun, dominates the overhead skyin the northwest. It is part of the pentagon on stars making up Auriga, the Charioteer (think Ben Hur). Several nice binocular Messier open clusters are found in the winter milky way here. East of Auriga, the twins, Castor and Pollux highlight the Gemini; it is directly above us as darkness falls in early March. UWF alumni can associate the pair with Jason and the Golden Fleece legend, for they were the first two Argonauts to sign up on his crew of adventurers.

South of Gemini, Orion is the most familiar winter constellation, dominating the southern sky at dusk. The reddish supergiant Betelguese marks his eastern shoulder, while blue-white supergiant Rigel stands opposite on his west knee. Just south of the belt, hanging like a sword downward, is M-42, the Great Nebula of Orion, an outstanding binocular and telescopic stellar nursery. The bright diamond of four stars that light it up are the trapezium cluster, one of the finest sights in a telescope. In the east are the hunter's two faithful companions, Canis major and minor. Procyon is the bright star in the little dog, and rises minutes before Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Sirius dominates the SE sky as darkness falls. At 8 light years distance, Sirius is the closest star we can easily see with the naked eye from West Florida.

When Sirius is highest about 8 PM as March begins, look south for the second brightest star, Canopus, getting just above the horizon and sparkling like an exquisite diamond as the turbulent air twists and turns this shaft of starlight, after a trip of about 200 years!

To the northeast, a reminder of Spring come on March 19th; look for the bowl of the Big Dipper rising, with the top two stars, the pointers, giving you a line to find Polaris, the Pole Star. Look for Mizar-Alcor,a nice naked eye double star, in the bend of the big dipper's handle, rising by 7 PM at the start of March.

March comes in like a Lion, as Leo rises. If you take the pointers south, you are guided instead to the head of Leo the Lion rising in the east, looking much like the profile of the famed Sphinx. The bright star at the Lion's heart is Regulus, the "regal star", but brighter still is Saturn, just east of Regulus.

March goes out like a lamb, not just from Easter tradition, but because Aries the Ram is setting in the west by the end of March. Many of our sayings and traditions have astronomical origins.

Continuing a tradition going back to the 1976 bicentennial, the EAAA will host a public stargaze at the gate for Fort Pickens on Friday evening, March 7th. We will set up at sunset, and use the dark skies to show you Saturn, Mars, and galaxies rising in the east, as well as the Orion Nebula and other winter treats. For more information on the Escambia Amateur Astronomers and our local star gazes for the public, visit our website often at or call our sponsor, Dr. Wayne Wooten at PJC at (850) 484-1152, or e-mail him at

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