Mars, moon cut in on Venus-Jupiter dance


Jupiter is one of the planets that will be visible to humans this March. In like a lamb, this month features a Venus-Jupiter heavenly duet, an interloping moon and a magnificent Mars. (NASA)
March 3, 2012

In like a lamb, this month features a Venus-Jupiter heavenly duet, an interloping moon and a magnificent Mars.

For the past few weeks, skygazers at dusk have been treated to cosmic candy – that is a very bright Venus (magnitude -4.3 now) and a bright Jupiter (magnitude -2.2) moving closer in the western sky. Late last month, the pair looked like the lit ends of a cheerleader’s baton, with Jupiter the higher object in the sky.

Now, these two planets get chummier. Watch the western sky at dusk every day for the next week, as Jupiter and Venus close their gap. By next Sunday, from our earthly perspective, the planets will be within 3 degrees of each other through Ides of March (March 15). The planets seem to pass one another in mid-month, as Venus climbs higher in the west and Jupiter becomes the lower planet in the sky.

The young, thin crescent moon climbs into the western sky March 23. You may be able to spot it at dusk March 24. This three-day-old moon snuggles up to Jupiter on March 25, and then dances a do-se-do with Venus on March 26.

Then the moon skitters off toward the east on March 27.

Mercury makes a cameo appearance between now and mid-March in the western sky. It’s almost a sub-plot under the main Jupiter-Venus drama. Observe closer to the horizon after dusk to find the fleet Mercury (zero magnitude, bright).

As the sun drops in the west, watch the magnificent Mars ascend the east. On Monday, our reddish neighbor, at -1.2 magnitude reaches its closest point to Earth this year, when the planet will be about 63 million miles from us. Saturn (at zero magnitude, bright) rises around 10 p.m. now in the east.

We will all be a wee bit sleepier as we lose an hour and officially turn our clocks ahead at 2 a.m. next Sunday, the start of daylight saving time, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory. Thus, 2 a.m. becomes the new 3 a.m.

While it might feel as though we’ve gone from one spring season into another, the Vernal Equinox, spring’s official start in the Northern Hemisphere, occurs March 20 at 1:14 a.m. EDT, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory.

Down-to-Earth Events

●March 5 – “An X-Ray view of Black Holes,” a talk by astronomer Javier Garcia, at the open house at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. Afterward, scan the night sky, weather permitting. 8 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.

●March 10 – The Space Shuttle is the featured subject in the Super Science Saturdays series. Hands-on activities, with visitors immersed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly. 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Free admission. $15 parking. www.nasm.si.edu/.

●March 10 – How do clouds of interstellar gas and dust transform into stars and planetary systems? Jennifer Wiseman of the Goddard Space Flight Center explains in her talk, “Protostellar Disks and Jets,” at the National Capital Astronomers meeting, University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. 7:30 p.m. www.capitalastronomers. org.

●March 11 – “The Dawn of Exoearths,” a lecture by astronomer Raphael Perrino, at the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club meeting, Room 80, Enterprise Hall, George Mason University, Fairfax. 7 p.m. www.novac.com.

●March 19 – Enjoy a program celebrating the Vernal Equinox, the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, at the Montgomery College Planetarium, Takoma Park. 7 p.m. www.montgomerycollege.edu/Departments/planet.

●March 20 – “Pulsars,” a lecture by Megan DeCesar, at the open house at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. Afterward, treat yourself to a night sky heavenly treat, weather permitting. 8 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.

●March 22 – “Big Bang for the Buck: Cosmology from WMAP,” a lecture by Charles Bennett, a physicist and astronomer from Johns Hopkins University. He explains the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) space mission and how it mapped the remnant radiation from the Big Bang across the entire sky. Lockheed Martin Imax Theater, National Air and Space Museum, National Mall. 8 p.m. (Stargazing at the public observatory, adjacent to the museum, 8:30 – 10 p.m.) www.nasm.si.edu/.

●March 24 – “Family Day: Women in Aviation and Space,” at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly. 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Free admission. Parking $15. www.nasm.si.edu/.

●March 30 – Imagine a moon that spits plumes of ice and vapor. “Enceladus: Saturn’s Remarkable, Watery Moon,” an illustrated lecture by John Spencer, of the Southwest Research Institute. Hosted by the Washington Philosophical Society. At the John Wesley Powell Auditorium, adjacent to the Cosmos Club, 2170 Florida Avenue NW. 8:15 p.m. www.philsoc.org.

Blaine P. Friedlander Jr. can be reached at PostSkyWatch@gmail.comPostSkyWatch@gmail.com.

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