After this bleak and blustery Washington winter, smile when you see these two words: vernal equinox.
The astronomical start to spring — the vernal equinox — occurs at 12:57 p.m. Eastern time March 20, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory. That’s the moment when the sun appears to cross the equator into the Northern Hemisphere. For the next three months, as our hemisphere gets its turn to tilt toward the sun, we’ll gain more light and warmth. Conversely, the Southern Hemisphere moves into autumn.
As you thaw, catch a few bright planets. When night falls, the sky reveals that Jupiter still loiters in the Gemini constellation. It rises in the northeast just before 1 p.m. in the afternoon now, which means that by sunset, the fat, gaseous giant is already high in the southeastern sky.
Jupiter is hard to miss at negative 2.4 magnitude (very bright). The portly waxing gibbous moon cruises under Jupiter on March 9-10. By the Ides of March, the planet crosses due south about 8:20 p.m. Like connecting the dots, draw a straight line from Jupiter down to Sirius, the Dog Star (negative 1.46 magnitude, very bright) in Canis Major. The large H-shaped constellation Orion stands to the west, or right, of that imaginary line.
Colorful encounters: Our red neighbor, Mars, saunters through the sky in the Virgo constellation and is close to the blue star Spica. Mars, at zero magnitude and visible through the District’s light-polluted urban skies, rises about 9:30 p.m. now in the east-southeast. This planet remains visible throughout the night, as early risers can scope Mars in the southwest before sunrise.
If you’re looking for rings, Saturn rises about midnight now, ascending the east-southeast. The planet will be nearly 30 degrees above the southeastern horizon about 3 a.m. Early risers can spot this other giant before sunrise in the southern heavens.
Like a gem worn by Academy Award nominees, the planet Venus oozes radiance in the morning sky. Our gorgeous neighboring planet — the other neighbor — rises in the southeastern sky just after 4 a.m., and becomes high enough to see long before sunrise. It’s a negative 4.7 magnitude, very bright, around mid-month. The thin, waning moon passes Venus on the morning of March 27.
You have a week to enjoy standard time: It’s nearly time to spring forward with our clocks, as we return to daylight saving time on March 9, when you move clocks forward one hour at 2 a.m. — which becomes 3 a.m.
●March 3 — “Stars Tonight,” at the David M. Brown Planetarium, 1426 N. Quincy St., Arlington. 7:30 p.m. $3. friendsoftheplanetarium.org.
●March 5 — “MAVEN,” a talk by NASA’s Kelly Fast on the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission. It launched last November and arrives at the red planet in September. At the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. View the heavens through telescopes, weather permitting. 8 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.
●March 7 — “Heart of Darkness: Understanding the Invisible Universe of Dark Matter and Dark Energy,” a lecture by Jeremiah Ostriker, Princeton University professor emeritus. This is hosted by the Philosophical Society of Washington, at the John Wesley Powell Auditorium, adjacent to the Cosmos Club, 2170 Florida Ave. NW. 8:15 p.m. www.philsoc.org.
●March 8 — “Rediscovering the Milky Way,” a lecture by Alyssa Goodman, Harvard University astronomy professor, at the Einstein Planetarium, National Air and Space Museum on the Mall. 5:15 p.m. airandspace.si.edu.
●March 9 — “Mars: A World Where Air Goes to Sleep at Night,” a talk by research scientist Timothy Livengood, at the regular meeting of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, Room 163 Research Hall, George Mason University. 7 p.m. novac.com.
●March 13 — “Living and Working in Space: Conducting Solar Observations from Skylab,” a talk by Owen Garriott, former NASA astronaut. 7:30 p.m. Lockheed Martin Imax Theater, Air and Space Museum on the Mall. airandspace.si.edu.
●March 20 — “The Vernal Equinox: the First Day of Spring,” a program at the Montgomery College planetarium, Takoma Park, 7 p.m. montgomerycollege.edu/Departments/planet/.
●March 20 — “When Chunks of the Universe Collide,” a talk by astronomer Simona Giacintucci, at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. Scan the night sky afterward, weather permitting. 8 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.