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The brightest planets in March's night sky: How to see them (and when)

This month, take your choice: If you concentrate your viewing primarily during the evening hours you can admire Venus which attains its greatest angular distance from the sun and its highest altitude in its 8-year cycle of recurring evening apparitions. The blazing planet finishes the month just a couple of degrees shy of the Pleiades Star Cluster.  On the other hand, if you confine your skywatching to the predawn hours, there are three bright planets (Mars, Jupiter and Saurn) that will engage in a planet pas du trois; the opening act of a show that will be staged by these performers, lasting to nearly the end of this year.  Jupiter and Saturn come to conjunction once in 20 years (on average) and will spend much of 2020 slowly approaching each other, finally engaging in an amazing conjunction – the closest between the two in nearly four centuries – several days before Christmas.

Mars, meanwhile continues to approach Earth, brightening at a rather slow pace.  But that increase in brightness will accelerate dramatically during spring and summer and by early fall the red planet will have shifted into our evening sky.  Then millions will gaze at it, a fiery light high in our eastern sky less than 39 million miles away; a nearby world in space. NASA has recently suggested that perhaps by the year 2035, when Mars and Earth are exceptionally close again, people will be gazing at Earth from the surface of Mars.  See: https://www.space.com/nasa-aims-for-2035-mars-landings-iac.html

In our schedule, remember that when measuring the angular separation between two celestial objects, your clenched fist held at arm’s length measures roughly 10 degrees.  Here, we present a schedule below which provides some of the best planet viewing times as well directing you as to where to look to see them.

Related: The 10 must-see skywatching events to look for in 2020

More: The night sky this month: March 2020 Guide

Planet Viewing Guide

In the opening days of March, Mercury will re-appear in the eastern pre-dawn sky, and quite rapidly move away from the sun. The severely tilted morning ecliptic will keep Mercury too low in the sky to be easily viewed by mid-northern latitude observers; but the planet will put on an excellent show for those located near the Equator, and farther south. Mercury will reach peak visibility at greatest western elongation on March 24 when it reaches its maximum possible angle of 28 degrees from the sun. During March, Mercury will steadily increase in apparent brightness—reaching magnitude 0.03 on March 31. At the same time, the planet will almost halve in apparent disk size while waxing in illuminated phase to 63%. On March 21, the very old crescent moon will sit a palm's width to the lower right (or 5.5 degrees to the southwest) of Mercury. (Image credit: Starry Night)

Mercury—having passed inferior conjunction on February 26th, becomes a morning object in March. Binoculars are essential to find it during this unfavorable apparition for mid-northern observers.  From March 10th through the 31st, Mercury rises in the east-southeast about an hour before the sun and brightens from magnitude +1.0 to +0.1. On the morning of the 23rd, Mercury pulls out to its greatest western elongation (maximum angular separation) of 27.8 degrees from the sun – about the maximum ever possible.  This makes for a superb apparition for observers in the Southern Hemisphere.  But at mid-northern latitudes, the +0.3 magnitude planet climbs just 5 degrees high in a bright twilight sky about 30 minutes before sunup and will likely require binoculars to glimpse.  

During March, Venus will continue its long and spectacular evening apparition in the western evening sky. It will be well worth viewing in telescopes, particularly during twilight, when it will be higher in the sky and seen through a thinner blanket of distorting air. In addition, the brighter surrounding sky will reveal the planet's partial phase more easily. Still swinging wider of the sun, the planet will move from Pisces into Aries on March 4. On the evenings surrounding March 8, Venus will pass two finger widths to the upper right (or 2 degrees to the north) of much dimmer Uranus. On March 24, Venus will reach its greatest angle (46 degrees) east of the sun. On that night it will exhibit a 50% illuminated disk in telescopes. During March, Venus will also ramp up in brightness – growing from magnitude -4.3 to -4.55. Its apparent disk diameter will swell from 18.95 to 25.5 arc-seconds. On March 28, the waxing crescent moon will sit a generous palm's width to Venus' left (south), setting up a nice widefield photo opportunity. To close the month, the planet will pass into Taurus on March 30, just days before crossing the Pleiades cluster on April 3.  (Image credit: Starry Night)

Venus—in late March reaches the summit of a magnificent climb into the evening sky. The circumstances of its apparitions repeat themselves almost exactly every eight years, so this is the highest Venus has gotten in the evening since 2012; it won't do so again until 2028.  Around sunset you should already be able to find it, gleaming like a speck of silver, roughly halfway up in the western sky. On the evening of March 24th, Venus attains its greatest angular separation from the sun, when it sets a full four hours after the sun for mid-northern observers.  In a telescope, Venus typically appears exactly half illuminated a few days before a greatest evening elongation.  Look for yourself and try to ascertain on which night the terminator (the line dividing light and dark on Venus) looks the straightest. On the 28th, although they are widely separated by nearly 8 degrees, Venus and a lovely crescent moon make for an eye-catching sight in the evening sky, the moon appearing to the far left of Venus.  Notice also the Pleiades star cluster about 5 degrees above Venus. The brilliant planet is well below the Pleiades as March begins.  But it is heading almost directly toward the cluster and is only a couple of degrees below it by month's end. 

Earth—on March 19th, at 11:50 p.m. EDT the Sun appears to cross the celestial equator moving north.  Spring begins in the Northern Hemisphere and autumn begins in the Southern Hemisphere. This is the earliest that the vernal equinox has occurred in 124 years.

march 2020 skywatching starry night

Mars will spend March in the southeastern pre-dawn sky, moving prograde eastward through the stars of Sagittarius while slightly brightening and growing in apparent disk size as the Earth-Mars separation decreases. Visible after it rises at around 4 a.m. local time until dawn, the Red Planet's faster orbital motion will allow it to overtake its fellow outer planets Jupiter and Saturn. On March 20, Mars will pass a finger's width below (or within 1 degree south of) considerably brighter Jupiter. Then, on March 31, Mars will a similar distance south of Saturn, with both planets also sitting close to the globular cluster Messier 75. At that time, Mars and Saturn will exhibit near-identical brightnesses of magnitude 0.8 and 0.66, respectively. The shallow angle of the morning ecliptic in the Northern Hemisphere will keep the three planets low in the sky, but southerly observers will have a better view of them. On March 18, the waning crescent Moon will create a lovely photo opportunity when it will sit only a few degrees south of (below) Mars and Jupiter, with Saturn less than 8° away from the trio.  (Image credit: Starry Night)

Mars—rises about three hours ahead of the sun, and brightens from magnitude +1.1 to +0.8 during March.  Meanwhile, the red planet moves 22 degrees eastward, from Sagittarius into Capricornus by the 31st.  On the 18th, the late crescent moon will move into the planetary group. About two hours before sunrise, it will be below Mars, with the planet standing off its upper cusp, and Jupiter above and to the left.  Slowly, the moon will move past Mars and toward Jupiter, but the rising sun will brighten the sky and cause Jupiter to disappear before the moon can pass it. Then, two mornings later, Mars skims just to the lower right of Jupiter and on the final day of the month, passes a similar distance from Saturn. The main reason for all this being that Mars moves rapidly eastward, while Jupiter and especially Saturn's motion are more sluggish. 

march 2020 skywatching starry night

During March, very bright Jupiter will be pursuing Saturn in the southeastern pre-dawn sky among the stars of eastern Sagittarius. The two gas giants will move to within 6 degrees of one another by month-end and will remain relatively close to one another for the rest of 2020. During March, Jupiter will rise at about 4 a.m. local time and remain easily visible until sunrise. Faster Mars will pass only 1 degree south of Jupiter on March 20. The shallow angle of the morning ecliptic in the Northern Hemisphere will keep the three planets low in the sky, but southerly observers will have a better view of them. Throughout the month, Jupiter will grow slightly brighter and larger in telescopes as Earth slowly draws closer to it, in preparation for opposition in July. Several double shadow transit events will occur on Jupiter in March. On March 18, the waning crescent Moon will create a lovely photo opportunity when it will sit only a few degrees below Mars and Jupiter, with Saturn less than 8 degrees away from the trio. (Image credit: Starry Night)

Jupiter—like Mars, also rises a few hours before the sun but is best seen, especially in telescopes, as dawn is starting to break.  At that hour the king-sized world shines fairly low in the southeast with the Teapot of Sagittarius to its right. On the morning of March 4th, about 90 minutes before sunrise, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn will be strung out diagonally in that order from upper right to lower left, low in the southeast sky, Jupiter equally spaced by 8 degrees from Mars and Saturn.  During the balance of the month, the arrangement of these three worlds will noticeably change. On the 20th, for example, Mars and Jupiter are in conjunction; Mars passes 0.7 degrees to the lower right of the much brighter Jupiter.  Finally, on the morning of March 26th, the three planets are equally spaced again but much closer together, Jupiter and Mars and Mars and Saturn each separated by only 3½ degrees; going from right to left: Jupiter, Mars and Saturn. 

Saturn will be observable as a yellow-tinted, magnitude 0.7 object in the southeastern pre-dawn sky during March—becoming easier to see as it climbs farther away from the sun. The planet will be moving prograde eastwards and slowly pulling away from of the Teapot asterism of Sagittarius. On March 21, Saturn will cross into Capricornus, passing just 2 degrees north of the globular star cluster Messier 75. Saturn will also share the morning sky with Jupiter and Mars. The shallow angle of the morning ecliptic in the Northern Hemisphere will keep all three planets low, but southerly observers will have a better view of them. Jupiter will move closer to Saturn during the month, and the duo will remain relatively close to one another for the balance of 2020. On the mornings of March 18, the waning crescent moon will form a close grouping with Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars. Mars will pass 1 degree south of Saturn on March 31. (Image credit: Starry Night)

Saturn—quietly shifting from Sagittarius into Capricornus on the 21st, certainly deserves close examination as soon as it emerges from the glow of sunrise this month. Saturn rises about a half hour before the first light of dawn in early March, and nearly an hour and a half before at month's end. But its southern declination will keep it frustratingly low for northern observers. The best views will be after dawn begins, and the farther south you are the better. On the 31st, Mars finishes the month passing 0.9 degrees to the lower right of Saturn. They'll make for an eye-catching pair, partly because of their color contrast (Mars orange-yellow, Saturn yellow-white) and also because they are of nearly the same brightness: Mars is magnitude +0.8 while Saturn is +0.7.  

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Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmers' Almanac and other publications in New York's lower Hudson Valley. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

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  • rod
    Good to see in the report Starry Night used for some charts. I use and enjoy very much in my stargazing as well as planet observations and asteroid tracking like 4 Vesta in Cetus now, moving retrograde. In my observation log (MS ACCESS DB), I load up views of the sky from Starry Night into my log entry along with various ephemeris generated that I import into Excel - works very well.
    Reply