Our Friendly Skies - March 2013

February 28, 2013|By CHRIS KOPKO/William Brish Planetarium and ANDY SMETZER/Tristate Astronomers
  • The All-Sky Chart for March 2013.
Tristate Astronomers

The March Sky

March is here and with it comes the first day of spring, daylight-saving time and a potentially spectacular comet! Don’t forget to “Spring Ahead” by setting your clocks ahead by one hour at 2 a.m. on Sunday, March 10! Now, let’s talk some stars!

Star off by finding the Big Dipper high in the northeastern sky. The Big Dipper includes four stars that form a cup and three stars that make a handle, pointing back toward the east. Follow the curve or arc of the handle to the bright orange star Arcturus, which sits at the bottom of the constellation Bootes the Herdsman. Just remember to “Arc to Arcturus.” Now go back to the Big Dipper and imagine there are holes in the bottom. If you imagine some water being poured into the Big Dipper, it will leak out directly onto Leo the Lion. Just remember to “Leak to Leo.” The head and mane of Leo are made of a group of stars that look like a backwards question mark with the bright star Regulus at the bottom. The rest of the body of Leo can be found back to the east of this.

For a more detailed tour of the night sky check out Skylights, the monthly podcast tour of the night sky, downloadable at

The March Solar System

Evening Planets

MARS may still be visible at the beginning of the month using a telescope or binoculars, but will not be visible to the unaided eye as it will be very low on the western horizon at sunset.

JUPITER is still visible in the evening sky and shines between magnitude -2.3 and -2.1 throughout the month. Look for Jupiter shining brightly in the western sky in the constellation Taurus the Bull.

SATURN will rise between above the eastern horizon between 10 and 11 p.m. at the beginning of March. Use a telescope to check out Saturn’s famous rings, which are tilted in regards to the earth for some spectacular views! By the end of the month, Saturn will have brightened slightly from magnitude +0.4 to +0.3 and will rise soon after twilight fades away.

Morning Planets

MERCURY will be at inferior conjunction with the sun on March 4 and so will not be visible at the beginning of the month. Closer to the end of the month you will be able to spot Mercury with a telescope or binoculars just above the eastern horizon before sunrise.

The March Sun and Moon

On March 1, sunrise is at 6:44 a.m. and sunset at 6:02 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, for 11 hours and 18 minutes of daylight. By March 31, sunrise will happen at 6:57 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, with the sun setting later in the evening at 7:33 p.m. for 12 hours and 36 minutes of daylight, a 78-minute increase from the beginning of the month.

Third quarter moon is March 4, new moon on March 11, first quarter on March 19, and the moon will be full on March 27.

Special events

Comet PanSTARRS is the first of two potentially spectacular comets to make an appearance in the night sky in 2013. PanSTARRS should be visible for observers at mid-northern latitudes with the unaided eye, or perhaps binoculars beginning in early March, around March 7. Just make sure you have a clear view of the western horizon.

Look above the western horizon, where the sun has just set, and as dusk fades, there you will find Comet PanSTARRS. The comet will be a little higher above the horizon on following nights and will move closer toward the Andromeda Galaxy in the sky.

PanSTARRS will make its closest approach to the sun, called perihelion, on March 10, and will glow between magnitude 0, now unlikely, and magnitude +3 (Smaller magnitudes equal brighter objects). Comet PanSTARRS comes from the outer reaches of the solar system in a place known as the Oort Cloud, and this is likely its first pass through the inner solar system.

Some models show that Comet PanSTARRS could reach magnitude 0, while new models suggest a much dimmer peak of magnitude +3. Unfortunately, that’s the problem with comets such as PanSTARRS, it’s very difficult to predict just how bright the comet will be.

Comet PanSTARRS is already visible in the southern hemisphere and can be seen with binoculars as of the last week of February. The comet already has a fan-shaped tail and should develop a longer tail as it streaks around the sun. The tail formed by the sun is the ion tail, which is made of gas and is a result of the solar wind, causing this tail to point away from the sun. There is also another tail made of dust called the antitail. This tail is not affected as greatly by the solar wind and as a result often points in a slightly different direction than the ion tail of the comet.

Though this comet has the chance to be the brightest comet seen in the northern hemisphere since the comet Hale-Bopp made its appearance in 1996-97, we’ll have to wait and see. However, even if PanSTARRS reaches a magnitude of zero, it may be very dim compared to the comet due in Earth’s skies this coming November-December, Comet ISON.

It is way too early to be sure, but some models say that Comet ISON could be as bright as magnitude -12, about the brightness of the full moon! As we get closer to the appearance of ISON, more accuratepredictions can be made.

The Herald-Mail Articles