The night sky in March 2016

posted 27 Feb 2016, 12:17 by Pete Collins   [ updated 28 Feb 2016, 10:45 ]
by Anne Holt

Sunset, 1st:  17-49    31st:  19-43 (BST)

New Moon 9th, Full Moon 23rd.

Not much in the way of highlights this month.  Once again we are approaching that time when the powers that be decree that we must all get up an hour earlier each day, in order to finish our daily tasks in time to enjoy the evening sunshine.  No thought for the poor astronomers. Yes, British Summer Time is upon us from Sunday, March 27th - which also happens to be Easter Day.

Also in March, we have the Vernal, or Spring, equinox.  On Sunday 20th, the sun will cross the celestial equator at 04-30.  However, we don't have quite equal day and night then - that happens 3 days earlier on 17th.

On March 9th there is a total Solar eclipse, but it is only visible from central Indonesia and parts of the Pacific Ocean. Some areas of Northern Australia and S E Asia will have a partial eclipse.


We are now losing the winter highlights of Orion, Sirius and Taurus soon after midnight, though they are still promiinent in the south in the early part of the night.
Auriga, with the bright yellowish-white star Capella, is now overhead soon after sunset, with Gemini and Leo also prominent, Leo currently being home to the bright Jupiter. The not very obvious zodiac constellation, Cancer, is now well placed. The Plough is overhead by midnight, the handle pointing to the orange hued Arcturus, the brightest star north of the celestial equator, in the constellation of Bootes. By the end of March the Summer Triangle will be above the horizon soon after 2am - or by 1am if you've forgotten to put the clock forward.


We are now losing Mercury and Venus in the pre dawn glare but the other 3 naked eye planets are all visible in the morning skies.

Mercury will be too close to the sun to be seen easily, as it approaches  superior conjunction on 23rd.  Right at the end of the month it might be spotted from places with a clear western horizon as it sets 50 minutes after the sun.

Venus is in Capricorn, mag -3.8. Now starting to get lost in the dawn twilight, despite its brilliance.  Might just be visible, very low in the Eastern sky, just before sunrise at the start of the month.  On 7th it is 2.75 degrees below the 4% lit waxing moon.  

Mars is in Libra, moving into Scorpio,  mag 0.3. Rises in the SE soon after 1am at the start of March and soon after 2am (BST) by month end, when it has moved into Scorpio. By this time it will have brightened to mag -0.5 and its apparent size will have increased considerably. However it will still be very low in the sky. At month end it will be 6 degrees from the red giant Antares.

Jupiter is  in Leo, mag -2.4. Still retrograde, moving westwards against the background stars. It reaches opposition on 8th and can be seen shining brightly all night throughout the month (weather permitting).  The disc is now 44 arcseconds in diameter so it's an excellent time to look through a scope at the surface features - or, to be more accurate, the cloud tops.  The belts and great red spot and the four Galilean moons should be a beautiful sight.

There are also several transits and shadow transits to look out for.
Among these are: 
8th:  A double transit.  Io, Europa and their shadows will all be visible on the planet's disc between 00.31 and 01.54.  Each moon will be slightly North of its shadow.
15th:  Io, Europa and shadows all visible between 02.20 and 04.10.
16th:  Io, Ganymede and shadows  20.51 - 22.09.
17th:  Callisto 19.15 -  21.45, its shadow 21.02 - 00.14
22nd:  Io, Europa and shadows 04.20 - 6.12.   However, the almost full moon will be close to Jupiter at this time.

Saturn is  in Ophiuchus, mag 0.5. Rises around 3am at the start of the month, 2am (BST) by the end.  By month end it almost reaches its highest point in the sky while it is still dark, but don't get too excited - its highest point is only 15 degrees above the horizon.  Still worth seeing through a scope, from a site with a clear Southern horizon, as the rings are wide open and the largest moon Titan shoud also be visible. On 3rd it is 3 degrees South of the 47% lit moon, very low in the South at 04.50.
From 25th its motion is retrograde. On 31st it is 9 degrees East of Mars.

Uranus is in Pisces mag 5.9. Not very good at the moment, setting around 8pm in early March, during twilight by month end,

Neptune is not visible.


C/2013 US10 Catalina begins March at around mag 9.5, in Camelopardalis, slightly South of open cluster NGC 1502.  By mid month, when it moves into Perseus, it is predicted to have faded to 10.5.  On 23rd it will pass just East of NGC1528 and at month end it will be very close to another open cluster NGC 1545.  By this time its mag will be about 11.1.

Comet 252P/LINEAR will pass Earth at a distance of only 3.25 million miles on March 21st - one of the closest comets ever recorded.  However it will not be visible from the Northern hemisphere until after 25th, when it moves into the tail of Scorpio and then up into Ophiuchus.  Expected mag somewhere around 9 or 10.  Because it is so close to us it will appear to move very quickly against the background stars.

Comet P/200 V1 (Ikeya Murakami) reaches perihelion on March 17th.  It was expected to reach mag 8 or 9 but is now reported to have  fragmented, with the brightest pieces only reaching mag 18 or 19.  It is in Cancer but can only be imaged in large scopes using a very long exposure.

Meteor showers

No major showers this month.  The Gamma Normids peak on 16th but are only visible from the Southern hemisphere.
There are several very minor showers around this time, but their radiants are so close together on the ecliptic, opposite the position of the sun, that it is almost impossible to distinguish them.  They are collectively referred to as the Spring Antihelion Source.  A ZHR of 3 - 4 is likely throughout March and April.

Some sources mention the Camelpardids, active around 22nd.  ZHR only 1, these are noted only for being the slowest meteors known, with a speed of only 7Km per second.

I also found mentions of the March Geminids.  These were first seen in 1973 and again in 1975.  Said to peak on 22nd and have a ZHR of 40.  However, they appear to have been a temporary shower, there's no record (that I could find) of any later sightings.