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A Guide to the Night Sky for March 2016

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A Guide to the Night Sky for March 2016

By Tre Gibbs, LAAS

“In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb…” How many times have you heard this proverb? We’ve most likely associated this saying with the arrival of March, since the month begins in the midst of winter, but ends in the kinder, gentler, beginning of spring. The truth is, this saying has more to do with the stars than it does the weather.

This ancient folklore is about two specific constellations, Leo the Lion and Aries the Ram (or lamb). If you go out side around 8:00 pm early in the month and look above the western horizon, you will see the two faint stars (in our light polluted skies here in L.A.) that make up the constellation Aries the Ram. Turn 180 degrees to the east and the same distance above the eastern horizon you will see a group of stars that resembles a backwards question mark – the head of Leo the Lion. So the Lion is rising in the east in the beginning of March, hence the month coming in “like a lion”.

Jump to March 31 about the same time at night (compensating for the time change of course) and Leo will be almost directly overhead while Aries the Ram (lamb) is about to disappear below the western horizon, hence, with Aries setting, the month of March is going out “like a lamb”.

Also, March brings us the Vernal Equinox – or Spring! At 9:24 pm on Saturday March 19th, it officially becomes spring in the Northern Hemisphere and autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. “Equinox” is a latin term meaning “equal night”, in which our lovely planet is neither leaning toward nor away from the sun and, as a result, both the northern and southern hemispheres 

receive equal amounts of daylight and darkness. This is noticeable to us in the position of the sun on the horizon when it rises and sets. On this day, the sun rises directly due east and sets directly due west. All other times of the year, the sun is rising and setting further north or south of these east and west cardinal points, depending which season we are in.

Big Dipper to Leo the Lion - March 2016 night sky

Ah, the planets! They’re out there, you just have to know when and where to look. The planets are the brightest lights in the sky so they are pretty easy to spot, since they are also the first lights to emerge during twilight. However, what makes them extra special is that these incredibly bright starlike objects wander – they move around – while the actual stars keep their same pat-terns. The word “planet” stems from the Greek word for “wander”. Since the sun, moon and planets all “wander” through the same path in the sky, we can actually use the moon as a tool to help us find the planets, especially the dimmer ones.

Jupiter is particularly prominent this month and for several months to come. Early in March, Jupiter rises in the east (as does everything) around 6:45 pm but by month’s end, rises around 5:30 pm. Look for the moon pairing up with Jupiter on the evening of the 22nd. Take it a step further – grab a pair of ordinary binoculars to spot four of Jupiter’s 67 moons…

Venus and Mercury will be in the sun’s glare for most of the month but Saturn, which rises around 2:00 am early in the month, pairs with the moon on the evening of the 2nd and then once again on the evening of the 29th, when the two will rise around 1:00 am. Mars rises around midnight early in the month and then around 12:30 am towards month’s end. Look for the faint, orangish “star” next to the moon on the evening of the 28th. The two have their cosmic interlude, like all the other planets, for one night only, as the moon impatiently races through the ecliptic, orbiting our pale blue dot every 28 days….or month.

Have a great month as we bid a frigid “So Long!” to Winter and a warm welcome to Springtime!