Find your way around the night sky! Below is a free sky map for March 2016 as well as a printable version, courtesy of astronomer Jeff DeTray.
Sky Map for March 2016
Each month, Jeff DeTray’s Sky Maps provides a sky map which highlights beautiful events in the evening sky—stars, constellations, planets, conjunctions with the Moon, meteor showers, and other amazing celestial objects. Follow more of Jeff’s sky adventures at AstronomyBoy.com.
Click-and-Print Sky Map
Just click here or on the image below to open the printable map—then bring outside!
Sky Map Highlights: March 2016
Saturn and Mars, Together at Dawn
Saturn, the Ringed Planet, and Mars, the Red Planet, are together in the early morning sky for the whole month of March. Go outside an hour or so before sunrise and look to the south to catch the show.
The two planets are easy to spot low in the south. As shown on this month’s map, the planets form an upside-down triangle with the bright star Antares. All three objects are about the same apparent brightness, but their colors differ. Antares and Mars both have a slightly orange hue and have been compared to one another for thousands of years. In fact, Antares means “equal to Mars” in ancient Greek. In contrast, Saturn appears to be nearly pure white in color.
The Brightness of a Planet
Although the three objects appear to be approximately the same brightness, things aren’t quite what they seem. There is a difference between apparent brightness and actual brightness. That difference is explained by distance.
- Saturn is much farther from us than Mars—currently more than ten times as far: 913,000,000 miles versus 87,000,000 miles. All things being equal, Saturn would be far dimmer than Mars. However, things are not equal. Though Saturn is more distant, it is also much larger than Mars. Being larger, it reflects more sunlight and therefore appears just as bright as Mars.
What about the star Antares? Like all the stars in the sky (except our Sun), Antares is unimaginably far away! Compared to Antares, Mars and Saturn are in our backyard.
- Antares’ distance is approximately 3,233,000,000,000,000 miles. That’s more than 3 quadrillion miles, or in astronomer-speak 550 light-years. Antares is three-and-a-half million times more distant than Saturn. Despite that extreme distance, Antares appears to be about the same brightness as our close neighbors, Saturn and Mars. The lesson here: Stars are really, really bright!
The relative proximity of Mars and Saturn means both planets are near enough that we have managed to send unmanned space probes to explore them. When you look at Saturn and Mars in the pre-dawn sky this month, consider how amazing it is that spacecraft from Earth are exploring their secrets right now.
MARCH 2016 Sky Map
Click here or on image below to enlarge (PDF)
Sky map produced using Chris Marriott’s Skymap Pro
TAP for Mars missions
Dozens of missions to Mars have been attempted, about half of which successfully reached the Red Planet. The first spacecraft to explore Mars was NASA’s Mariner 4 in 1965. Mariner 4 flew by Mars and transmitted 21 low-resolution photos of the surface. The first spacecraft to land on Mars were NASA’s Viking 1 and Viking 2 in 1976. These early missions put an end to centuries of speculation that Mars might harbor an alien civilization.
At present, there are seven spacecraft on and around Mars. Two rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity, are busily exploring the Martian surface, while five other craft collect data from orbit.
Photo credit: NASA
TAP for Saturn missions
Although it’s in our general neighborhood, Saturn is much farther away from Earth than Mars and is therefore more difficult to reach. So far, only three space missions have explored the Saturn system. The first was Pioneer 11, which flew by Saturn in 1979, sending back medium-resolution photos and information about the rings. Voyagers 1 and 2 passed by Saturn in 1980 and 1981. These fly-by missions provided us with the first high-resolution images of Saturn and its fabulous rings.
Photo credit: NASA
In 2004, the Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn and went into orbit around the planet. Cassini has been sending back photos and other data ever since and will continue to explore Saturn for at least another year.
See our Sky Watch page for more highlights of the monthly sky, courtesy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac.