Ohio SkyLites - March 2023
What’s Up? Constellations, Planets, and Astronomical Events Visible in March 2023
-Written and Compiled by Alyssa Whalen
Happy spring season everyone! The astronomical start of the season is marked by the vernal equinox which occurs on March 20th, but we’ll have to wait and see whether the weather will reflect the season. The Vernal (spring) equinox is a special point in Earth’s orbit around the sun where the Earth’s tilt is perpendicular to the sun. The two equinoxes are most widely known for being the two days out of the year when the sun spends the same amount of time above the horizon as it does below. So from March 20th until the autumnal equinox in September, the sun will be shining more than the stars are out every day.
March’s full moon rises the night of March 7th this year. As March is the start of the spring season, classically tied to warming weather and rainfall, Native Americans named the full moon the Worm moon. This season’s changing weather softened the ground, so earthworms are commonly found on the surface. March’s new moon occurs just after the vernal equinox on the night of the 21st. The dark skies during this time are the best nights to observe fainter objects, but the best views will be found far away from city lights.
Venus and Jupiter are at their closest approach on March 2nd! The two planets will be visible after sundown at 6:30 until the planets set around 9 pm. Weather permitting, the planets will be clearly visible with the naked eye and binoculars, but they are still too far apart to be viewed together using a telescope. The lunar occultation of Venus also occurs later this month on the 24th. A lunar occultation is when an object is obscured by the moon from our perspective on Earth. The occultation itself will not be visible from Ohio, but we will be able to see Venus approach the moon that night.
Saturn is slowly peeking out from behind the sun in the early mornings. Later in the month, Saturn rises before sunrise at around 6 am but will vanish after the sun rises. Mercury and Neptune are currently too close to the sun from our point of view on Earth to see. Uranus will be visible in the early part of the month, but it will be difficult to spot without a telescope. Conversely, Mars will be perfectly visible to the unaided eye from sunset until it sets around 3 am.
The γ-Normid meteor shower peaks on the morning of March 15th in the constellation Norma. The radiant point of the shower is on the horizon in the southern sky, which makes the meteor shower difficult to view, but it is still possible to see meteors throughout the sky at a much lower rate. The constellation is below the horizon until early in the morning, and at this time of year it will not be fully above the horizon, so the best time to view the meteor shower will be between 5:00 am and sunrise at 7:45.
As we transition to the spring season, I want to take this opportunity to discuss popular guide stars that are up this season. These stars are bright enough to be seen in even Columbus’ night sky, and they can be used to orient yourself as you stargaze.
The most popular constellation this time of year is Orion the hunter, which can be found in the southern/southwestern sky at sundown. It is most often recognized by “Orion’s Belt”, the three stars in the center of the constellation. Above the belt is the bright star Betelgeuse (left shoulder), and below the belt is Rigel (right foot). Following the belt westward leads to the bright star Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus, and following the belt eastward leads to Sirius in the constellation Canis Major, the brightest star in our sky. Drawing a line between Rigel and Betelgeuse, and following it further overhead will point you directly to the constellation Gemini, with its characteristic twin bright stars Castor and Pollux. Castor is the brighter of the two stars, and Pollux is the slightly dimmer star further eastward. The bright star east of Orion, between Gemini and Canis Major, is Procyon in Canis Minor
The sky is constantly changing as the seasons pass, but this guide will help you navigate the bright stars of the spring sky.
Orbit Diagram: https://www.weather.gov/cle/Seasons
γ-Normid Meteor Shower: https://in-the-sky.org/news.php?id=20230315_10_100
Bright Stars: https://stellarium-web.org/