Mercury reaches greatest elongation west on March 14th (28 degrees) and as a result is well placed as an early morning object throughout March for observers located in the Southern Hemisphere and tropics. This also happens to be the most favourable morning apparition of the year from the Southern Hemisphere.
Mercury's period of visibility during this particular apparition is considerable; it extends from the end of February until the middle of April. At the end of last month Mercury appeared as a faint tricky object low down above the eastern horizon just before sunrise. The situation quickly improves during March with the planet increasing from magnitude +0.8 on March 1st to magnitude +0.1 by March 14th (the date of greatest elongation west) when Mercury appears highest in the morning sky. For example, from latitude 35S (approx. equal to Sydney, Cape Town and Santiago), Mercury will appear 17 degrees above the eastern horizon 45 minutes before sunrise. It should also be noted that once past greatest elongation west, Mercury continues to brighten as it begins to draw into the Sun. The planet doesn't reach maximum brightness (mag -1.0) until the very end of the visibility period, more than 4 weeks after greatest elongation west!
As March progresses, Mercury brightens from magnitude +0.8 to -0.2 with the phase of the planet increasing from 28 to 76 degrees. Dichotomy or half-phase occurs on March 11th, when the planet is 50 percent illuminated. On March 19th, Mercury reaches aphelion and is located 0.467 AU (approx. 69.9 million km or 43.4 million miles) from the Sun.
Unfortunately, from northern temperate latitudes the angle of the ecliptic is not favourable and the planet remains low down and unsuitably placed for observation during March.
Venus reaches greatest elongation west (47 degrees) on March 22nd and remains a brilliant object in the early morning skies during March. From the Southern Hemisphere the planet can be seen towards the east for approx. 3 hours before sunrise. Despite fading from magnitude -4.6 to -4.3 during March, unmistakable Venus shines like a dazzling beacon. This brightest of all planets can even be followed with the naked eye for a short time after the Sun has risen above the eastern horizon.
From northern temperate latitudes Venus is visible for less than two hours before sunrise, appearing low down above the east-southeast horizon. The illuminated phase of Venus increases from 37 to 54 percent during March with dichotomy or half-phase occurring on March 23rd.
On March 27th, the waning crescent Moon will pass 4 degrees north of Venus.
Mars is now a beautiful late evening object that's located in Virgo. The fourth planet from the Sun is named after the Roman god of war and appears to the naked eye striking red-orange in colour. With not long to go before opposition (April 8th), Mars brightens rapidly as the month progresses. It starts March at magnitude -0.5 just to the northeast of Spica (α Virgo - mag. +1.0) before ending the month at magnitude -1.3 and five degrees directly north of the star.
On March 1st, Mars reaches its first stationary point after which it begins retrograde motion. The planet continues to move this direction until May 21st when it reaches its second stationary point and following that direct motion is once more resumed.
As well as rapidly brightening this month, the apparent size of Mars also increases from 11.6 to 14.6 arc minutes. When viewed through a small telescope Mars appears small but under good seeing conditions it's possible to spot major surface features such as the North Pole cap, Syrtis Major and other dusty markings. Don't be afraid to push up the magnification as high as possible to bring out those subtle details.
On March 19th, the waning gibbous Moon passes 3 degrees south of Mars.
Jupiter is now two months past opposition and although currently fading in brightness and apparent size it remains a brilliant object in Gemini. The planet is visible shortly after sunset and remains so until after midnight for northern-based observers, although the period of visibility is considerably less for those located further south.
At the start of the month, Jupiter continues its retrograde motion until March 6th when it reaches its second stationary point. After this, direct motion is again resumed. This also represents the end of this year's opposition period. On March 1st, Jupiter shines at magnitude -2.4 with an apparent diameter of 42 arc minutes. At the end of the month the brightness has decreased to magnitude -2.2 and the apparent diameter to 39 arc minutes.
On March 10th, the waxing gibbous Moon (68% illuminated) passes 5 degrees south of Jupiter.
Saturn, mag +0.6, is located in Libra and also reaches a stationary point this month. Like Mars, the beautiful ringed planet reaches its first stationary point (on March 3rd), which signals the change in motion from direct to retrograde. As a result, Saturn will appear to move little against the "fixed" background stars this month. By the end of March, Saturn is rising before midnight for observers in northern temperate latitudes and a couple of hours earlier for those further south.
Of course the rings of Saturn are its most famous feature and even a small telescope will show them. Through medium and large aperture amateur scopes they are a fantastic breathtaking sight. In addition to the rings a handful of Saturn's moons are also visible. The largest and brightest moon Titan shines at eight magnitude and is visible with binoculars. In addition, a medium size scope will also show Rhea, Tethys, Dione, and Iapetus.
On March 21st, the waning gibbous Moon passes 0.2 degrees south of Saturn and an occultation is visible from the South Atlantic at 3:18 UT.
The first days of March represent the last opportunity to view Uranus before it reaches solar conjunction on April 2nd. At the start of the month, the planet sets about 2 hours after the Sun. Uranus (mag. +5.9) can be seen with binoculars and small telescopes although it won't be long before the bright evening twilight catches up with it and after the first few days of the March it won't be longer visible. The seventh planet from the Sun, which was discovered in 1781 by William Herschel is currently located in Pisces, southeast of the Great Square of Pegasus.
On March 3rd, the thin waxing crescent Moon passes 2 degrees north of Uranus.
Neptune is currently located in Aquarius. The planet reached solar conjunction on February 23rd and remains unsuitably placed for observation throughout March from the Northern Hemisphere. However, towards the end of the month observers located at tropical and southern latitudes should be able to spot the distant planet low down towards the east in the early morning sky just before sunrise. At magnitude +8.0, binoculars or a small telescope are the minimum optical aid required to glimpse Neptune.
Solar System Data Table March 2014
|Date||Right Ascension||Declination||Apparent Magnitude||Apparent Size||Illum. (%)||Distance from Earth (AU)||Constellation|
|Sun||5th Mar 2014||23h 01m 32.7s||-06d 14m 32.1s||-26.8||32.3'||100||0.992||Aquarius|
|Sun||15th Mar 2014||23h 38m 26.4s||-02d 19m 56.3s||-26.8||32.2'||100||0.994||Pisces|
|Sun||25th Mar 2014||00h 14m 55.4s||01d 36m 56.7s||-26.8||32.1'||100||0.997||Pisces|
|Mercury||5th Mar 2014||21h 24m 19.4s||-14d 15m 04.8s||0.4||08.5"||37||0.788||Aquarius|
|Mercury||15th Mar 2014||21h 56m 35.7s||-13d 30m 35.6s||0.1||07.2"||56||0.938||Capricornus|
|Mercury||25th Mar 2014||22h 44m 32.1s||-10d 11m 39.6s||0.0||06.2"||69||1.078||Aquarius|
|Venus||5th Mar 2014||20h 01m 29.3s||-16d 28m 54.6s||-4.7||30.9"||39||0.541||Sagittarius|
|Venus||15th Mar 2014||20h 38m 08.9s||-15d 36m 45.5s||-4.6||27.0"||45||0.617||Capricornus|
|Venus||25th Mar 2014||21h 17m 51.1s||-13d 58m 23.3s||-4.5||24.0"||51||0.695||Aquarius|
|Mars||5th Mar 2014||13h 45m 19.9s||-07d 50m 36.3s||-0.6||12.0"||96||0.778||Virgo|
|Mars||15th Mar 2014||13h 41m 23.5s||-07d 27m 12.8s||-0.9||13.2"||97||0.712||Virgo|
|Mars||25th Mar 2014||13h 32m 39.1s||-06d 41m 02.7s||-1.2||14.2"||99||0.661||Virgo|
|Jupiter||5th Mar 2014||06h 44m 38.7s||23d 17m 00.9s||-2.4||41.9"||99||4.702||Gemini|
|Jupiter||15th Mar 2014||06h 45m 09.4s||23d 17m 13.3s||-2.3||40.6"||99||4.853||Gemini|
|Jupiter||25th Mar 2014||06h 47m 02.6s||23d 15m 50.0s||-2.3||39.3"||99||5.011||Gemini|
|Saturn||5th Mar 2014||15h 25m 21.0s||-16d 15m 38.2s||0.6||17.5"||100||9.496||Libra|
|Saturn||15th Mar 2014||15h 24m 52.8s||-16d 11m 53.1s||0.6||17.8"||100||9.346||Libra|
|Saturn||25th Mar 2014||15h 23m 45.2s||-16d 05m 52.0s||0.5||18.0"||100||9.212||Libra|
|Uranus||5th Mar 2014||00h 40m 21.7s||03d 38m 03.1s||5.9||03.4"||100||20.912||Pisces|
|Uranus||15th Mar 2014||00h 42m 20.9s||03d 50m 51.9s||5.9||03.4"||100||20.977||Pisces|
|Uranus||25th Mar 2014||00h 44m 24.8s||04d 04m 06.5s||5.9||03.4"||100||21.016||Pisces|
|Neptune||5th Mar 2014||22h 29m 06.5s||-10d 13m 50.6s||8.0||02.2"||100||30.957||Aquarius|
|Neptune||15th Mar 2014||22h 30m 30.8s||-10d 05m 48.9s||8.0||02.2"||100||30.918||Aquarius|
|Neptune||25th Mar 2014||22h 31m 51.3s||-09d 58m 09.7s||8.0||02.2"||100||30.852||Aquarius|