The equinox, an evening dance of planets, and a historic potential rocket launch are a few of the month's wonders.
And just like that: it’s already the third month of the year. How are you? Ready for spring? In celestial terms, 2023 is off to a quiet start. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, that’s not such a bad thing. Evenings are dark, devoid of the incessant noises of warmer months, clear and cold. It’s a great time to reflect, breathe deep, and enjoy the beauty of the changing seasons. So get out there and revel in the quiet while you can. Summer is coming.
Your Last (Likely) Month for Crisp Viewing Conditions
March is likely your last month to see the night sky with extreme clarity. Why? Cold air holds less moisture than warm air, resulting in crystal-clear conditions in winter. Summer nights, on the contrary, are generally heavy with moisture and hazier. Combine this with long nights (at least until daylight saving time crashes the party) and you’ve got some great opportunities for you (or the whole family) to enjoy the night sky well before bedtime.
Applaud the Appulse of Jupiter and Venus (March 1)
Jupiter and Venus will have a seemingly close encounter in the western sky in the early evening hours of March 1st. Credit: Stellarium
Ever heard of an “appulse”? On March 1st, you can see one just after sunset when Jupiter and Venus come to within just half a degree of each other. This is technically the super-close equivalent of a planetary conjunction but without an eclipse or occultation.
As Sky and Telescope explain, while these two planets may appear to be touching, the reality behind the illusion paints a much different picture: “Although they certainly look close together, Venus tonight is 11 light-minutes from Earth while Jupiter is 48 light-minutes away, more than four times farther.”
Look to the western horizon just after sunset to see these two planetary giants dance together and then slowly apart as March moves on.
Gaze Upon the Full ‘Worm’ Moon (March 7)
Of all the nicknames given to describing full Moons throughout the year, “worm” may be one of the most cringe-inducing. Nonetheless, that’s the most popular designation for March’s full lunar phase, which reaches its peak illumination around 7:42 a.m. EDT on the evening of March 7. The Farmer’s Almanac reports that the slimy moniker is in recognition of the emergence of earthworms to mark the early days of spring. But you know what? I think it’s time for a rebranding strategy.
For instance, the Ojibwe—the most populous tribe in North America—have long referred to March’s full Moon as the “Sugar Moon,” a more appetizing association in recognition of sugar maple trees producing vast quantities of delicious sap. Some other names include the “Goose Moon,” (Cree), “Crow Comes Back Moon” (Northern Ojibwe), and the relatable “Sore Eyes Moon” (Dakota, Lakota, Assiniboine) from the reflection of moonlight off snow cover.
But hey—earthworms are vitally important to our ecosystems, so maybe giving them a bit of recognition isn’t such a bad idea. Keep shining on, you beautiful Worm Moon.
Daylight Saving Time is Coming For Your Sleep (March 12)
Okay, so it’s not strictly a night sky event, but the arrival of “Spring Forward” with Daylight Saving Time on March 12 at 2 a.m. EST does cut into opportunities for easy waking-hours enjoyment of celestial events. As David Dickinson of Universe Today explains:
“For astronomers, the shift to DST means that true darkness falls much later in the evening, marking the abrupt end of the school star party season not long after March. You don’t have to go far north to about latitude 45 degrees to find areas where it doesn’t get dark until about 11 p.m. local towards mid-summer.”
As Davidson points out, we do gain a bit of extra darkness in the morning hours, but even that lasts only so long as we march in summer. Whether you’re a night owl or an early riser, coffee is an astronomer’s best friend going forward.
The Gamma Normids Blaze Down Under (March 14-15)
For our friends in the Southern Hemisphere, March 14-15 marks the peak of the γ-Normid Meteor Shower. While not one of the more prolific annual showers, with observed shooting stars averaging about six per hour, they do dazzle—with descriptions of swift, orange-colored meteors. In some years, as high as 20% in 1986, Normid meteors also feature trains or glowing streaks left behind as they race across the sky.
For best viewing, look to the shower’s radiant point in the small constellation Norma after midnight.
Celebrate the Vernal Equinox (March 20)
While it’s still a bit early to put away the snow shovels and bury the winter coats in storage, the vernal equinox is nonetheless a promising milestone in our movement towards warmer weather and increasingly longer days. For those down in the Southern Hemisphere, the opposite holds true. Wherever you are, the vernal equinox for 2023 will officially begin on March 20 at approximately 5:24 a.m. EST. On this date, the sun rises exactly due east and sets exactly due west, with sunlight striking both hemispheres equally. It’s also one of only two dates throughout the year when both day and night are equal in length.
A New Moon Ushers in Dark Skies (March 21)
There’s no better way to enjoy the crystal-clear viewing conditions of March than with a late New Moon keeping light pollution (at least from the heavens) to a minimum. If you want a dark sky target, try finding the Triangulum Galaxy. Located approximately 2.73 million light-years from Earth, it is one of the most distant permanent objects that can be viewed with the naked eye. To locate it, head out when skies are completely dark and look for it in the constellation Andromeda. The Triangulum Galaxy is a bit notorious among astronomers for being difficult to spot on your first try, so if you own a pair of binoculars, bring those along to help enhance the view!
Like the Andromeda Galaxy (our closest galactic neighbor), Triangulum may one day collide and combine with our own Milky Way. Other scenarios (such as this NASA animation) have it orbiting around the amalgamated remains of Andromeda and the Milky Way. The good news is, we have several billion years to prepare for either outcome.
Catch Ceres, the Largest Object in the Asteroid Belt, with Some Binoculars (March 21)
Discovered in 1801 and originally considered a planet, the nearly 600-mile-wide Ceres has since been classified as a dwarf planet and is the largest object residing in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
On March 21, Ceres will be at opposition to Earth and, despite being only a quarter the size of our moon, will be visible through a small telescope or binoculars. Fortunately, viewing conditions will be at their best thanks to dark skies from the New Moon. Look for it in the Hyades star cluster in the constellation Taurus.
SpaceX May Attempt a Historic Rocket Launch (All Month)
SpaceX’s Starship, the tallest and most powerful launch vehicle ever built, may have its first orbital launch sometime this month. The rocket is designed to be reusable—with its Super Heavy Booster returning to Earth after delivering the Starship spacecraft to orbit. Upon reentry, the Super Heavy will land by being “caught” by two giant clamps at SpaceX’s Texas Starbase.
Last month, SpaceX successfully completed a static fire that saw 31 of Starship’s 33 engines successfully light. According to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, the thrust generated by 31 engines alone would have been enough to successfully launch Starship into orbit. All that remains now is for SpaceX to receive a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration, a last hurdle they expect to be cleared soon.
Should Starship be successful, SpaceX has its eyes set on using the rocket to deliver humans and supplies to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for more details on this historic first launch all month.