Sunrise and Sunset Times from the U.S. Naval Observatory

Sun rises at 6:35 a.m. and sets at 5:53 p.m. on the 1st.

Sun rises at 6:48 a.m. and sets at 7:24 p.m. on the 31st.

Moon’s Phases in March

New Moon on the 6th.

Full “Worm Moon” on the 20th.

Stars and Constellations

The warmer temperatures of March are a welcome change from the cold, nippy nights of January and February, and the sky observer can watch the brilliant winter constellations early in the evening gradually yield the celestial stage to the fainter spring star groups later at night. To start, look high in the southwest during the early evening hours, and find the winter constellation Taurus, which contains the orange-red star Aldebaran, along with the V-shaped Hyades and Little-Dipper-shaped Pleiades star clusters. Just west of overhead is the yellowish star Capella, and high in the south are Betelgeuse and Rigel in Orion. The stars Pollux and Castor in the constellation Gemini are high in the east-southeast.

The brightest appearing star in the night sky, Sirius in Canis Major, shines with bluish-white radiance to Orion’s lower left. The name Sirius means “scorching,” a designation given by the ancient Greeks who believed that Sirius was responsible for the heat of summer, and so the hot, muggy days July and August became known as “Dog Days.” At a distance of only 8.5 light years, Sirius is one of the Sun’s nearest neighbors. Above and to the left of Sirius is Procyon in Canis Minor. Procyon is also relatively nearby, only 11 light years away.

As evening progresses into night, the stars of spring rise higher in the east. Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, which stands high in the east, lies about 78 light years from our solar system. Its name denotes “King” or “Royal.” Leo’s second brightest star, Algieba, is a pretty telescopic double, with both stars in the pair showing a distinct yellowish color. Up in the southeast below Regulus is the moderately bright star Alphard, the brightest star in the constellation Hydra. Alphard’s name means “the Solitary One,” and this makes perfect sense since Alphard appears to be alone with no other moderately bright stars in its vicinity.

The brightest of the spring stars is yellow-orange Arcturus in the constellation Boötes (the Herdsman), which can now be glimpsed low in the northeast. Arcturus is the fourth brightest star in the night sky, after Sirius, Canopus and Alpha Centauri, but the last two of these are too far south to be seen from most of the continental U.S. Arcturus is highlighted by University of Illinois astronomer Dr. James Kaler in his book, "The Hundred Greatest Stars" (New York: Copernicus Books, 2002), stating that Arcturus is an orange giant star with a diameter about 25 times that of the Sun and lying 37 light years from our solar system.

The Big Dipper, which is part of the constellation Ursa Major, is also rising in the northeast. The two front stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper, Merak and Dubhe, point toward the North Star, Polaris. The Dipper’s handle “arcs” to Arcturus. Arcturus’s name derives from “arktos,” the Greek word for “bear.” This is appropriate since Arcturus follows Ursa Major around the North Celestial Pole. Our modern day geographical term “arctic” refers to the Great Bear’s northerly location.

Naked-Eye Planets in the Evening and Morning Sky

Mercury reached its greatest elongation east of the Sun on Feb. 26, and as March opens, it is still in good position for evening viewing. Look for Mercury low in the southwest about 20 to 30 minutes after sunset during the first few days of March. In the days following, Mercury quickly vanishes into the dusk glow and reaches inferior conjunction with the Sun on March 14 and reappears in the morning sky at month’s end, although it will be difficult to locate.

Mars, mimicking a bright orange star, is fairly high up in the southwest at nightfall. Once Mercury departs after the first week of March, Mars remains the sole bright planet in the evening sky. Mars’s brightness continues to diminish as Earth continues to pull away from the Red Plant. By month’s end, Mars will be more than five times farther from Earth than it was last July and twice as far away from Earth as the Sun. This March, Mars rides through the stars of Aries the Ram and Taurus the Bull, passing below the Pleiades Cluster at the end of the month. Mars sets a few minutes before midnight EDT this March.

Jupiter is getting higher above the horizon with each passing morning, and by the middle of March, it lies due south at sunrise. Shining with a cream-colored brilliance, Jupiter rises around 2 a.m. EST on the 1st and shortly after 1:30 a.m. EDT on the 31st. Jupiter will continue to brighten slowly through the spring as the Jupiter-Earth distance steadily decreases.

Saturn follows Jupiter, rising almost exactly two hours afterward. Saturn rises around 4 a.m. EST on the 1st and by 3 a.m. EDT on the 31st. Saturn, like Jupiter, will slowly brighten over the next several months.

Venus continues to burn brightly low in the east-southeast in the early morning, but it is slowly descending into dawn glow. Venus rises about two hours before the Sun as March opens, but that interval shrinks to only a little over one hour by month’s end. Venus follows Saturn in rising by only a half-hour on the 1st but by 2½ hours on the 31st.

The noon Sun stands directly over the equator on March 20 at 5:58 p.m. EDT. This point is the Vernal Equinox, which marks the start of spring in the Northern Hemisphere and of autumn in the Southern Hemisphere.

Information on lunar phases and rise/set times of Sun and planets is obtained from the U.S. Naval Observatory Data Services at usno.navy.mil/astronomy. Additional information comes from "The Astronomical Almanac (2016-2020)" by Richard J. Bartlett (Stars ‘n Stuff Publishing, 2015). For more information on the night sky, visit the Widener Observatory Stargazing website at widener.edu/stargazing. A set of free sky maps can be obtained at skymaps.com.

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