Unfortunately there are no meteor showers in March, but keep your eyes out for stray meteors just the same. You never know when a sporadic meteor will show up under a dark sky.
Keep an eye out for the Zodiacal Light on Moon-free March evenings, just after sunset. This light is caused by the dust that collects along the ecliptic (the plane on which the planets orbit) and is visible as a cone or pyramid on the western horizon. The best viewing times should between March 3 and 18, weather permitting.
Mercury will be rising in the west at dusk in March. Starting on March 2, it will be rising with Venus and both should be visible though the same binocular view. Mercury will be just to the right and slightly below Venus on March 2, but will rise rapidly so that by March 4 and 5 it will be above and right of Venus. Mercury will reach its greatest height above the horizon on March 15, the best appearance for the planet this year in Canada, after which it will sink swiftly. By the end of the month the speedy little planet will be lost in the sun’s glare.
Venus will rise in the west at dusk this month and will be easy to see. Just look for the brightest “star” and you have found it. The planet will slowly rise higher in the evening sky as the month marches on (no pun intended) and will set two hours after the sun by the end of the month. As well as providing a convenient point for locating Mercury, Venus also points the way to a faint crescent Moon. On March 18th the just past new Moon will lie to the left of Venus while Mercury lies above and to the right of the bright planet.
Uranus also rises in the West shortly after dusk. It will linger in the southeast corner of the constellation of Pisces the Fish all month and set before midnight. You will need binoculars or a telescope to spot this faint planet and your best chances are earlier in March when it and Pisces are higher in the sky. It will pass just south of Venus on March 28 and should rest in the same field of view for binoculars.
Jupiter will rise in the southeast shortly before midnight and set in south in the morning. Resting in the constellation of Libra the Scales this month, it is far brighter than any of the stars nearby. The giant planet will brighten ever so slightly as the month progresses. The best time to take a look through a telescope will be an hour or two before dawn, when Jupiter is highest in the sky and its light passes through less of Earth’s atmosphere. This should provide sharper views of the Jovian clouds.
Keep an eye out for the Great Red Spot, but don’t be disappointed if you don’t see it immediately. Jupiter’s day is only 10 hours long, so if you wait a bit the spot will come into view. Also keep your eyes open for Jupiter’s larger moons as they provide a constantly changing pattern. This is because they each have different orbiting times. Io takes only 1.8 days, Europa takes 3.6 days, Ganymede 7.2 days, and Callisto 16.7 days to orbit Jupiter. Occasionally, the moons are all on the same side of the planet. This will happen three times this month, on March 11, 24, and 25, though March 11 and 25 are supposed to provide the best views.
Mars will start the month rising two hours after midnight in the south. The Red Planet is supposed to reach its best viewing in 15 years this July, so now might be a good time for astro-imagers to start practicing. Mars will move eastward during the month, ending up in the constellation of Sagittarius. Mars will brighten noticeably as the month progresses — predictions say up to 60 per cent. It will also increase in size, as viewed through a telescope or binoculars, by up to 25 per cent. On March 19, Mars passes midway between the Lagoon Nebula (M8) and the Trifid Nebula (M20), which should be an amazing binocular or telescope view and a great photo opportunity. If you are following Mars all month you may notice it approaching another fairly bright light. That golden point of light is Saturn — the two planets should be at their closest for the month on March 31.
Saturn rises a couple hours after Mars in the southeast. Because it is moving so slowly compared to the much closer Mars, Saturn appears stationary. It will linger in Sagittarius just above a globular star cluster known as M22. If you are looking through a telescope you will see Saturn’s famous rings tilted towards you by 26 degrees.
Neptune is lost in the twilight and should reappear in late April.
For those of you following comet PANSTARRS (C/2016 R2) on its first visit in human memory to the inner Solar System, it will be travelling northeast between the constellations of Perseus the Hero and Auriga the Charioteer. You will need a telescope of four inches or larger to see the comet, and you will want to pump up the power to see any detail.
Another interesting binocular or telescope target for March is the dwarf planet Ceres. It is seen in the western half of the constellation of Cancer the Crab, which rests high in the eastern sky. It will start the month by heading west before curving towards the south. One way to spot Ceres is to draw the stars that make up Cancer on a piece of paper, then head outside. After letting your eyes adjust to the darkness, draw in the stars you see in the western half of the constellation. Wait a week and repeat the exercise. You will discover that one of the “stars” has moved — that will be Ceres.
Ceres was discovered by Giuseppe Piazzi on New Year’s Day in 1801. At first it was thought to be the missing planet between Mars and Jupiter, but was later downgraded to an asteroid. In 2006, Ceres was granted dwarf planet status. It should provide a nice little challenge for you this March.