Brilliant Venus in west at nightfall. Venus – brightest of all planets, and third-brightest object in the sky after the sun and moon – climbs higher up at dusk and nightfall, and stays out later after dark, throughout March 2015. It beams as brilliantly as a lighthouse as darkness falls this month! Be sure to catch Venus at dusk and early evening, especially from temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, because it’ll follow the sun beneath the horizon by early evening. At mid-northern latitudes, Venus stays out longer after dark but still sets by mid-evening.
At mid-northern latitudes, this dazzling world sets about two and one-half hours after sunset in early March. The queen planet’s visibility improves throughout March, setting about three hours after the sun by the month’s end.
Do not miss the sky on the early evening of March 21. The young moon and Mars will lie beneath Venus as soon as darkness falls on that evening. Read more here. This date (March 21) may present your final chance to view Mars in the evening sky because the Red Planet will soon fade into the glare of sunset.
Fading Mars in west at nightfall. Mars continues to fade in brightness, especially in contrast to its glory when Earth passed between the Red Planet and the sun in April, 2014. But you can see Mars still, especially when it pairs up with the moon on March 21. Venus will help guide your eye to Mars, which shines below Venus and closer to the horizon as darkness falls. Throughout March 2015, Venus will be climbing upward from the sunset while Mars will be sinking toward it.
The red planet Mars is getting dimmer as it lags behind us in its larger and slower orbit. At mid-northern latitudes, Mars sets about two hours after the sun in early March. Like a fading ember, this world is slowly but surely disappearing into the glow of sunset as Earth races ahead of Mars in its orbit. By late March 2015, Mars will set about one and one-half hours after the sun and will be hard to find in the glare of evening twilight.
Bright Jupiter at nightfall, out almost all night. Once you see Jupiter in the east at dusk or nightfall, it’s unmistakable. This world shines more brilliantly than any star. As evening falls, look for brilliant Venus in the west, and Jupiter in the east. Jupiter is always the second-brightest planet after Venus. In March 2015, Venus sets in the west at early-to-mid evening, leaving the king planet Jupiter to rule the night until the predawn hours. Jupiter goes westward throughout the night; and at mid-northern latitudes, sets in the west about one hour before sunrise in early March, and by the month’s end, sets about two hours before sunup.
If you have binoculars or a telescope, be sure to check out Jupiter’s four major moons, which look like pinpricks of light on or near the same plane. They are often called the Galilean moons to honor Galileo, who discovered these great Jovian moons in 1610. In their order from Jupiter, these moons are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.
These moons circle Jupiter around the Jovian equator. In cycles of six years, we view Jupiter’s equator edge-on. So, in 2015, we get to view a number of mutual events involving Jupiter’s moons through a high-powered telescope. Click here or here or here for more details.
Click here for a Jupiter’s moons almanac, courtesy of Sky & Telescope.
Saturn from late night till dawn. At mid-northern latitudes, the golden planet Saturn rises in the southeast about one hour after midnight in early March and one hour before midnight by the month’s end. (By midnight we mean midway between sunset and sunrise, which is roughly 1 a.m. daylight-saving time.) At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Saturn rises at late evening in early March and mid-evening by late March. Watch for the waning moon to shine within the vicinity of Saturn for a few days, centered on March 12.
Binoculars don’t reveal Saturn’s gorgeous rings. For that, you need a small telescope.
Saturn’s rings are inclined at about 25o from edge-on in March 2015, exhibiting their northern face. Several years from now, in October 2017, the rings will open most widely, displaying a maximum inclination of 27o. As with so much in space (and on Earth), the appearance of Saturn’s rings from Earth is cyclical. In the year 2025, the rings will appear edge-on as seen from Earth. After that, we’ll begin to see the south side of Saturn’s rings, to increase to a maximum inclination of 27o by May 2032.
Mercury in east as dawn breaks. Mercury is our solar system’s innermost planet and always stays near the sun in our sky. As seen from the Southern Hemisphere, the first half of March 2015 presents a particularly good time for catching Mercury in the morning sky. We at northerly latitudes aren’t so lucky but we can always try our luck with a pair of binoculars.
At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, this world rises about two hours before the sun during the first week of March. At mid-northern latitudes, Mercury rises about one hour before sunrise at the first of the month, but rises considerably closer to sunrise only a few days thereafter. By the time that the waning crescent moon passes close to Mercury on the mornings of March 18 and 19, Mercury will be virtually impossible to view from northerly latitudes, but still in sight from southerly latitudes.
So you catch our drift here. From the Southern Hemisphere, Mercury puts on a decent show in the morning sky in the first few weeks of March 2015, whereas we at northerly latitudes miss out!
However, Mercury will transition out of the morning sky and into the evening sky in April 2015. Then it’ll the Northern Hemisphere’s turn for a favorable apparition of Mercury, as the innermost planet features its best evening apparition of the year in late April and early May 2015.
What do we mean by visible planet? By visible planet, we mean any solar system planet that is easily visible without an optical aid and that has been watched by our ancestors since time immemorial. In their outward order from the sun, the five visible planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These planets are visible in our sky because their disks reflect sunlight, and these relatively nearby worlds tend to shine with a steadier light than the distant, twinkling stars. They tend to be bright! You can spot them, and come to know them as faithful friends, if you try.
Bottom line: Three of the five visible planets are in good view in March 2015: Venus, Jupiter shine first thing at nightfall, and Saturn adorns the late night and predawn hours! Mars and Mercury pose more of a challenge, as Mars sinks toward the sunset and Mercury falls toward sunrise.