Skip to main content

https://space.blog.gov.uk/2021/03/03/the-night-sky-in-march/

The night sky in March

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Astronomy
Credit: NASA. One of the first photos from Jezero crater, Mars. Much of the terrain in Jezero crater has previously been considered too hazardous to risk a landing attempt there, but with new technology onboard Perseverance did an excellent job of finding a safe place to touch down.

The Spring or ‘Vernal’ Equinox

Having heralded the approach of spring in last month’s blog (which was promptly followed by snowfall across much of the country!), March sees celestial proof that the seasons are changing, with the spring equinox taking place on 20 March. This is the day when the Sun passes the equator moving from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere, with the north pole starting to lean towards the Sun again, and with day and night being roughly equal in length.

The Red Planet

On 18 February, NASA’s Perseverance Rover completed its seven month journey to Mars. It hit the atmosphere of the planet at around 16-times the speed of sound, and touched down gently just a few minutes later, quickly returning its first image from the surface.

You can watch the spectacular video footage that the rover captured on its descent to the surface of Mars here. You can find also find news and information on the mission, as well as the photographs taken by the rover at https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona. Mars-orbiting spacecraft HiRISE captured this image of the Perseverance rover dangling under its parachute, falling through the atmosphere above the Jezero crater.

Night sky highlights

Meanwhile from our perspective here on Earth, Mars appears to drift slowly past the blue stars of the Pleiades (also known as the Seven Sisters or Messier 45) in the constellation of Taurus through the first half of the month. For more information on this wonderful star cluster, and where to find it in the night sky, check out November’s blog.

On the evening of 18 March, a 25% illuminated Moon, the blue stars of the Pleiades, red giant star Aldebaran and the planet Mars will form a bright and colourful gathering in the south western sky.

The return of the gas giants

Early risers with a low south-easterly horizon might spot Saturn and Jupiter in the pre-dawn sky this month, as well as the planet Mercury. 9 March is a particularly good morning to try and spot these three, as they are joined by a 20% illuminated Moon that sits just to the right of them, providing a helpful guide for where to look.

The constellation of Auriga

Looking almost directly upwards after sunset, Capella, the sixth brightest star in the night sky, will be one of the first stars you spot, blazing from the constellation of Auriga.

While it looks like a single star to the naked eye, it is actually a system of four stars made up of two pairs. The pair whose light we see most clearly are both nearly 10-times the size of our Sun, and they are remarkably close together, orbiting each other at around the same distance that Venus orbits the Sun.

Star chart (from http://stellarium.org/) showing the stars and constellations visible in the west around 10pm.

While highest in the southern sky through winter, Capella is ‘circumpolar’ from the UK, meaning that it never sets below the horizon in the north, but can be seen swooping between Polaris (the pole star) and the horizon through the nights of the summer months.

The constellation of Auriga contains three large, distant clusters of stars, called Messier 36, 37 and 38, visible as faint, hazy blobs of light from dark skies away from town and city lights. The stars in these clusters look faint because they are much further away from us than the brighter, more prominent stars around them in our night sky.

Capella, for example, is ‘just’ 40 light years away, while these star clusters are between 3,500 and 4,500 light years away. The clusters are visible to us because they contain a number of stars much brighter than our own. At that distance, our own star would not be visible.

The constellation of Auriga, taken from a remote site in Wales this time last year – a different world!  Prominent stars are Capella (centre), Menkalinan (top left), Mahasim (left) and Elnath (peeking through the tree in the bottom left). Distant star clusters Messier 38 and Messier 36 are visible just above the tree.

Other night sky sights to spot this month

The Plough, an asterism of the stars in the spring constellation of Ursa Major (the Great Bear) is visible all year round, but is highest in the night sky through spring. Look high in the north east at around 9 – 10pm to see how its position has changed since we introduced it in December’s blog.

March is a great month to try and see the International Space Station as it passes over the UK. Use the table below to find the best times to spot it.

The new Moon will bring the darkest skies of the month to the nights around 13 March, while the full Moon will appear in the constellation of Virgo on 28 March.

As spring arrives, the core of the Milky Way, the dense swathe of stars that amass around the centre of our galaxy, becomes visible low in the east before dawn. We’ll look at this wonderful sight more next month!

The International Space Station

The second half of March provides an excellent opportunity to see the ISS as it orbits our planet at around 27,700km (17,200m) per hour. We’ve picked out the brightest, highest passes across the sky, but you can visit heavens-above.com to see a complete list of passes.

Best ISS passes over UK (times may vary slightly depending on location)
Date Time Where will it come from? Where will it head?
20-Mar 20:02 SW ESE
21-Mar 20:51 WSW WSW
22-Mar 20:03 WSW E
23-Mar 19:16 SW E
23-Mar 20:53 W WNW
24-Mar 20:05 W ENE
25-Mar 19:18 WSW ENE
25-Mar 20:54 W NW
26-Mar 20:07 W E
27-Mar 19:19 W E
27-Mar 20:56 WNW WSW
28-Mar 21:09 WNW ESE
29-Mar 20:21 W E
29-Mar 21:58 W SW
30-Mar 21:10 WNW SE
31-Mar 20:23 WNW ESE

 

Sharing and comments

Share this page

Leave a comment

We only ask for your email address so we know you're a real person

By submitting a comment you understand it may be published on this public website. Please read our privacy notice to see how the GOV.UK blogging platform handles your information.