Here are the monthly sky watch highlights. Each month, we share the wonders of the universe to help you explore the night sky from your own backyard. (Note: Times listed below are ET.)
by Bob Berman, as featured in
The Old Farmer's Almanac
Mars rises at around 9:00 P.M. early in the month. It continues to brighten explosively, to magnitude –0.9 at midmonth.
Brilliant Jupiter forms a pair with the Moon below on the 9th, parading above Orion and at its highest between 7:00 and 8:00 P.M.
The Moon forms a lovely triangle with blue star Spica and Mars on the 18th, best seen after 11:00 P.M., and then meets Saturn on the 20th; the pair rises just before midnight and getes progressively higher through the wee hours.
Spring begins with the vernal equinox at 12:57 P.M. on the 20th.
Look for a brilliant conjunction between Venus and the Moon low in the eastern sky before sunrise on the 27th.
March 2014 Sky Map
Astronomer Jeff DeTray has created the sky map below to help you navigate the March sky.
Visit Jeff's site at AstronomyBoy.com
This month's highlight: The Big Dipper and its many companions.
An asterism is a distinctive pattern of stars that is part of one of the larger group of stars that we call constellations. The best known and most prominent asterism in the northern sky is the Big Dipper. The Big Dipper asterism has been recognized for many thousands of years, and it has many names in cultures around the world. In the United Kingdom, it's The Plough, Charles' Wain (wagon), or The Cleaver. In Holland, The Saucepan. In Finland, The Salmon Net. In Malaysia, The Ladle.
The Big Dipper comprises the brightest stars of the constellation Ursa Major, the Greater Bear, which appears upside down with his paws upward on this month's Sky Map. The Big Dipper forms the hindquarters and tail of the Bear, with fainter stars forming its head, legs, and paws. It's a fairly large constellation, of which the Big Dipper asterism is only a part.
The two front stars of the Big Dipper's bowl are known as the “Pointers” because they point toward Polaris, the North Star. So once you have found the Big Dipper, it's easy to find the North Star. Polaris, in turn, is part of Ursa Minor, the Lesser Bear, and sits at the very tip of the little fellow's tail. Ursa Minor is also known as the Little Dipper, and indeed, its shape more or less mimicks that of its larger cousin but on a much smaller (and less bright) scale.
The Big Dipper's handle (the tail of the Greater Bear) is a pointer in its own right. If you extend the arc or curve of the handle, it leads you to Arcturus, the brightest star in Boˆtes, the Herdsman. This gives us the stargazer's helpful phrase, “Arc to Arcturus.”
Right at the bend of the Big Dipper's handle are the stars Mizar and Alcor. Can you see both stars, or do they blend together as one? If you can see them both, then your eyesight is better than mine!
After finding the Big Dipper, then Polaris, look to the left for a somewhat lopsided “W” standing on end. The “W” is made up of the brightest stars of Cassiopeia, the Queen. To the right of Cassiopeia is her rather faint King, Cepheus, who looks much like a child's drawing of a house with a sharply peaked roof.
The stars and constellations near Polaris are visible every night of the year for observers in mid-northern latitudes, which includes most of North America, Europe, and much of Asia. However, the orientation of the constellations changes throughout the year and even through the course of a single night as they all appear to rotate around Polaris. The Big Dipper may appear above, below, to the left, or to the right of Polaris, depending on when you look. The position of the Big Dipper (and all the other stars) changes noticeably in as little as a few hours, so it is interesting to note the location of the Big Dipper at 8:00 p.m., then check it again at 11:00 p.m. or later. Instead of being to the upper right of Polaris, the Big Dipper will have moved almost directly above Polaris in just three hours. This apparent movement is due to the rotation of the Earth on its axis.
Sky map produced using Chris Marriott's Skymap Pro
Explore the sky night from your own backyard. A printable black and white map is provided below!
Click for Printable Sky Map (PDF)
Just click, print, and bring outside!