Considering that Jupiter and Venus now fill the air with romantic, galactic activity, March seems the perfect month to start Spring.
The two bright planets in the southwestern sky get so close, they seem to touch. Venus glows far brighter and passes above Jupiter on Saturday and Sunday. The crescent moon nudges near the cosmic couple on the night of March 20, making for an interesting triangle.
Although it remains to be seen whether Jupiter gives one of his rings to Venus, it's official that the lovely spring season begins March 20 at 4:39 a.m. EST. The sun sits directly above the equator at that precise moment, making its way north to warm this half of the planet.
Man-made objects also are active this month. Catch the best pass of Mir, the Soviet space station, on the morning of March 11, says Aleta Jackson of the National Space Society. The space station climbs in the southwestern sky at 5:18 a.m., reaching its highest altitude a few minutes later before heading northeast. And if you miss it this time, it's due to pass this way again -- west to northeast -- on March 12 at 5:39 a.m.
If you can't see Mir, check out one that's pure American: The model rocket launches at the Goddard Visitor's Center on March 6 and 20, beginning at 1 p.m. each day. The program for March 20 features a full-scale replica of the first rocket ever fired by Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry.
The full-scale model was built by Bob Slater, the Visitor's Center manager, a few years ago. He duplicated it without formal instructions and there is no prefabricated kit. Slater will use solid fuel instead of the liquid fuel that Goddard used 62 years ago.
"Poor Goddard," Slater says. "He had to take a blow torch, tie it on a long stick and have his assistant light it."
Local Galactic Events
Saturday -- The Earth spins 1,000 miles an hour, its axis wobbles and the poles tilt. Jim Sharp, chief of the Einstein Planetarium at the Air & Space Museum, provides a moving experience in his lecture, "The Wandering Earth" at the planetarium. 9:30 a.m. Admission free.
Saturday -- Grace Deming, an astronomy professor at the University of Maryland, describes surprising connections between our planet and Venus in her lecture, "Venus: Earth's Twin." Sky viewing after the lecture. Admission is free at the university's observatory. 8 p.m. Call 454-3001 for information.
Saturday -- The National Capital Astronomers present Dr. James Hughes of the Naval Observatory speaking on improved astronomical measurements in his lecture, "Recent Advances in Astrometric Instrumentation." Einstein Planetarium, 7:30 p.m. Free.
March 12 -- Stars come out and the telescopes point up as the Goddard Visitor's Center sponsors "Star Watch." Telescopes are provided, or bring your own. 7-9 p.m. Free.
March 16 -- Radiating, pulsating and exploding stars reveal cosmic secrets. Herbert Friedman, an expert in X-ray astronomy, explains those secrets in his lecture, "The Violent Universe." Langley Theater, Air & Space Museum. 7:30 p.m. Free.
March 20 -- How does the system work? University of Maryland astronomy Prof. Mukul R. Kundu's lecture, "The Solar System," is at 8 p.m. at the university's observatory. Sky viewing afterward. Free.
March 29 -- The first lesson in astronomy basics teaches how the sun, the moon, the planets and the stars are within everyone's grasp. Join the Air & Space Museum's David DeVorkin for his lecture, "Time and the Seasons." Einstein Planetarium. 7:30 p.m. Free.
April 2 -- Ron Doel, a Guggenheim fellow, compares the perception of the universe in 1888 with that in 1988 in his lecture, "Same Sky, Different Story." Einstein Planetarium. 9:30 a.m. Free.
April 5 -- Want to spy at the sky? Geoff Chester discusses "Observing the Heavens: The Tools of the Trade." Einstein Planetarium. 7:30 p.m. Free.
April 5 -- Some scientists think a force peppered the Earth with comets, raising so much dust that the dinosaurs were killed off at once. What was that force? Dr. Roger Bell, director of the University of Maryland's astronomy department, discusses, "Nemesis: The Sun's Companion?" At the university observatory. 9 p.m. Free.