Get familiar with our five closest celestial neighbors
For many of us, the view through the telescope that roped us into the astronomy hobby was a view of Saturn. I know that was the case for me, once, when I was a Boy Scout, eons ago and again in 1996 when I was walking through Baltimore with a friend. There was a youngish guy in a park with a telescope pointed at Saturn. For only $2.00 anyone could see the ringed planet. He had quite the wad of one dollar bills and definitely got two of mine and I've never looked back.
During this month of March there are five visible planets for amateur astronomers to enjoy including Saturn, the Queen of Planets. All are relatively easy to identify because they tend to shine with a steadier light than the twinkling stars. Challenge yourselves and try to locate all five!
As winter trudges toward its ending (slower in some parts of the US than others) the reigning planet as night falls is Jupiter. Jupiter is hard to miss. It's the brightest night sky object -shining brighter than any other heavenly body except for the moon. Jupiter has been with us all winter and is a popular target at the Observatory and in home-based telescopes. It is great fun to watch the dance of the four Galilean moons (Io, Ganymede, Calisto and Europa). In case you forgot what we shared at the Observatory, these four moons, discovered by Galileo, are the largest moons of the 67 that have been discovered so far and the only ones visible in backyard telescopes. The neat thing about them is that they are also visible in a binocular. Go out and watch them travel around Jupiter every night in March from dusk until the wee hours of the morning. Find Jupiter - the brightest object in the eastern sky, floating near the two stars, Castor and Pollux, of the constellation Gemini.
At around 11:00 PM daylight savings time, Mars rises in the eastern sky. It is a reddish starlike object that is near Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo. An easy way to find Spica is to follow the handle of the Big Dipper down to the next bright star-that's Arcturus- and then follow that line to the right to the star Spica ("arc to Arcturus, speed/spike to Spica"). Mars is hanging around Spica all month and will brighten as the month progresses because in our field of view, Earth is catching up with Mars in the race of planets around the sun. Earth and Mars are getting closer and in early April Mars will be at its closest point to Earth and at its brightest. Through a binocular or a telescope, Mars is really unimpressive except that it is obvious that it is a disk. On clear, transparent nights, it's possible to see the polar ice cap with high magnification but otherwise it's hard to pick out much detail, if any. Remember, Mars is not nearly as bright as Jupiter.
In the early morning/pre-dawn hours, Venus rises in the east. It is a bright beacon of light that's hard to miss. A couple of times this past winter I've seen Venus and had to check that it wasn't an airplane...it's that bright and hard to miss. It remains a morning star through all of March and most of the Spring. From our vantage point, Venus goes through phases like our Moon. Right now it is about 25% illuminated and crescent is visible through a binocular or telescope.
Saturn, our Queen, rises about midnight during the early part of March and late evening as the month progresses. Saturn is golden colored to the naked eye and is in the vicinity of the constellation Libra, the Scales, this month. As with other visible planets it rises in the east. On the first night of spring, the waning moon will help guide you to Saturn if you need help. Through a binocular, there is a hint of the rings apparent but in a small telescope and larger the glory of the magnificent rings is visible to take your breath away. And yes, that bright point of light near Saturn is most likely Titan, its largest moon. That moon actually has a bit of Earth on it - the Huygens probe released by Cassina back in 2004. The probe landed on the surface of Titan and sent information back to earth for approximately 90 minutes. It remains the only landing on an outer planetary body.
Mercury is no longer in the evening sky as mentioned in a past blog. At the end of the month of March it will be visible in our northern early morning sky very low on the horizon. It will be hard to spot because it competes with the sunrise but for someone trying to catch all five visible planets in March, it's worth the try March 28-30. It will be below Venus and the moon so use those for your guideposts.
Often, when I go out at night to do something with the horses, I look up and greet the various planets visible as an old friend (really!). Like constellations they are a steady reminder of the wonders of the night sky and as you become more familar with them, they almost seem to wave back!