Popular Astronomy

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What's Up for March 2017

The stars are out. You know you should be out there making great discoveries. But before you can solve the mysteries of the Universe there is another mystery. Which star is which?

When you are a beginner, there's a lot to learn in a short time. But you don't have to go it alone – we're here to help. This page will get you started. Even so, the only way you can really do it is to go out and see for yourself.

Oh, the usual Health and Safety warning. It can get pretty cold out there, so put your coat on. This is not your mother talking, it just makes sense. The more comfortable you are, the better you will enjoy stargazing. Who cares if it's an anorak – no one can see you. And a bobble hat helps, too. A hoodie? That's up to you, as long as the hood doesn't cover your eyes when you look up....

You will need a star map, and you will need to know how it works. This may seem obvious, but there is a knack to understanding these things. Here's our map for this month:

Whole sky for March 2017

All maps produced using Stellarium software.

Wrong way round?

Now don't write in and tell us that we have the points of the compass all wrong. This is a map of the sky, so you have to hold it over your head. This where a tablet comes in handy! When you do this, east and west will be the right way round.

It shows the whole sky, so the scale is quite small. Normally you turn to see different parts of it, so to see the view looking north, for example, hold the map upside down with north at the bottom.

The map shows the sky in mid month at about 8.30 pm, at the start of the month at 9.30pm, or by the end of the month at 7.30 pm. All times are GMT, but remember that British Summer Time starts on Sunday 26 March so for six days you need to add an hour.

TIP If you aren't sure of the direction of north from your location, click here for a page on Getting Your Bearings.

Making sense of the stars

The trouble with the real sky is that it doesn't have all those handy labels on it. So once you've worked out where south is, look in that direction and you should see a very bright star, which is Sirius – actually the brightest star in the night sky. Notice we said 'night sky' so we don't get messages from smartie pants saying that the Sun is the brightest star in the sky. Just be Sirius for a moment. Sorry, serious.

Look up to the right of Sirius and you should see Orion, with its line of three stars and other stars surrounding it. The star at its top left is Betelgeuse – what astronomers call 'Bet-el-jooze' and everyone else calls 'Beetlejuice'. Ignoring this insult to a perfectly well-behaved star, look now to the left of Beetlejuice – sorry, Betelgeuse – and find another bright star, Procyon. These three stars make up what is called the Winter Triangle. You can see this area in greater detail on the map below.

Sky for March 2016

Other constellations to look for

High up above Procyon is a pair of stars called Castor and Pollux. Thank you, we've had enough jokes about star names for one month, so let's just point out that these are the main stars of Gemini, the Twins. Click to find out more about these stars and the constellation.

Farther to the left (or the east, to be accurate) is the constellation of Leo. And immediately above Orion is the constellation of Auriga, with its bright star Capella, which is actually almost overhead.

The really tricky one is Cancer, the Crab. Though everyone knows its name because it's in the Zodiac, it's very hard to find if your skies are all aglow with streetlights. In fact, you can hardly see any of its stars on our map, which only shows the brighter stars. But it's well worth finding because it contains one of the sky's best star clusters, the Beehive. To find it, click here to find out more, and you'd better beehive yourself.

If you want a map with all the constellation names on it, click here. You can set it for any time of the night you choose.

This month's bright planets

Phases of Venus in March 2017
How the phase of Venus changes during March

At the time of night for the map, the only planet visible is Mars, over to the west, which is now quite faint and tiny as it's quite a long way from Earth, almost on the far side of the Sun in fact. You can see Mars on the top map, over in the west. 

But earlier in the evening you can't miss Venus, which is lower down than Mars and to its right. Venus is very bright at the moment, and is a really thin crescent because it is almost between us and the Sun. It only remains visible until the third week in March, when it gets too low in the sky to be seen.

If you can, take a look at it through a telescope and you'll see its crescent, looking like a mini-Moon but without all those craters. In fact, even good 10-magnification binoculars should show the crescent. It gets thinner as the month goes on, as the diagrams here show.

Jupiter rises over in the south-east just after map time, so you should see it as a bright object after about 10 pm. Also take a look at Jupiter through your telescope or binoculars to see up to four of its brightest moons on either side of it. They move from night to night, so you can actually watch them orbiting. Jupiter will be around in the sky for a few months to come. 

Saturn is in the early morning sky at the moment, over in the south-east, and doesn't even rise until about 3 am, so if you have to get up in the middle of the night for something or other you can see it as a brightish star low in the south-east.

If you've never seen the planet Mercury, the last week of this month is a good time to find it. Look over in the west about 45 minutes after sunset and you may see it low in the sky, below and to the right of Mars. It gets higher day by day, so keep trying. The thin crescent Moon is to its left on 29 March, so that should help in finding it and will be a good photo-opportunity.

What about the Moon, then?

It begins the month just after New Moon which was on 26 February, when it’s in the same part of sky as the Sun and isn’t visible.  You will see it as a crescent after sunset over in the west on the 1st, when it is just to the left of Mars. First quarter – that’s a half Moon – is on the 5th and then full Moon this month is on the 12th. Last quarter on the 20th, then the month ends with New Moon on the 28th.
We have a whole section of this site about the Moon and what to observe, so do take a look.

Get more helpful info

OK, you've read all this for nothing, now comes the plug. This page is brought to you by the Society for Popular Astronomy, which is a really great society to join. It's based in the UK but there are members in other countries as well. It doesn't cost much to join, and there is a special rate for Young Stargazers. At least take a look at what we have to offer. 
Text by Robin Scagell