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Mercury

During the first week of March from equatorial and southern regions Mercury can be seen low down above the eastern horizon just before sunrise. Also visible six degrees above the planet is much more brilliant Venus which acts as a good marker. For comparison, Mercury shines about mag. -0.4 while Venus is at mag. -3.8, a difference of 22x.

On March 8th the very thin waning crescent Moon passes 4 degrees north of Mercury although spotting the planet with the naked eye is likely difficult and binoculars will probably be necessary. After that Mercury continues to draw into the Sun before reaching superior conjunction on March 23rd.

From northern temperate latitudes the planet is not suitable placed for observation throughout the month.

Morning apparition of Mercury as seen from latitude 35S - 45 minutes before sunrise (credit - freestarcharts)

Venus

For observers at northern temperate latitudes the long morning visibility of Venus finally comes to an end during March. During the first half of the month the planet can be seen above the eastern horizon just before sunrise but it's not long before it's swamped by the bright dawn sky.

From southern and equatorial locations, Venus remains visible throughout March. However the visibility period is decreasing and by months end the planet rises less than 90 minutes before the Sun. At mag. -3.8, Venus is unmistakable and easily brighter than all other celestial objects except the Sun and the Moon.

On March 7th, the thin waxing crescent Moon passes 4 degrees north of Venus. Later on March 20th Venus passes 0.5 degrees south of much fainter and more distant Neptune (mag. +8.0).

Mars

Mars is now well established in the late evening / morning skies as it heads towards opposition in May. The "Red planet" begins the month in western Libra 13 degrees northwest of Antares (α Sco - mag. +1.0) and 18 degrees west of Saturn. It then continues its direct eastward motion against the fixed stars although at a slower pace than in previous months. Mars crosses into Scorpius on March 13th where it stays for the remainder of the month.

Mars as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope on August 26, 2003 (credit:- NASA/ESA)

From northern locations Mars rises around midnight but over couple of hours earlier from tropical and southern locations. During the month its brightness doubles from magnitude +0.3 to -0.5 with its apparent size increasing from 8.7 to 11.7 arc seconds. Telescopically it's becoming easier to spot the main surface features such as the North Pole cap, Syrtis Major and other large dusty markings. A useful tip when seeing conditions are good is to push up the telescopic magnification as high as possible to tease out additional surface markings.

On March 16th, Mars passes 9 arc minutes north of double star Acrab (β Sco - mag. +2.5) offering a lovely sight through small scopes. Another nice view occurs on March 29th when the waning gibbous Moon is between Mars and Saturn.

Moon, Mars and Saturn as seen a couple of hours before sunrise from London, England on March 29, 2016 (credit:- stellarium)

Mars and Saturn during March 2016 (credit:- freestarcharts)

Mars and Saturn during March 2016 - pdf format (credit:- freestarcharts)

Jupiter

The planetary highlight of the month occurs on March 8th when Jupiter reaches opposition. On this day the gas giant is located 4.435 AU (663.5 million kilometers or 412.3 million miles) from Earth as it moves retrograde in western Leo. Visible all night long, Jupiter (mag. -2.5) rises in the east at sunset, reaches its highest point in the sky around midnight before setting in the west at sunrise.

Jupiter as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope on April 21, 2014 (credit:- NASA/ESA)

A pair of 7x50 or 10x50 binoculars will show a very small white or pale coloured planetary disk. Also easily visible are the large Galilean moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto) which continuously change position as they orbit the planet. Small scopes show a number of planetary details including the great equatorial belts and shadow transits of the Galilean moons. Larger scopes reveal the "Great Red Spot" and may other subtle cloud details across the 44 arc second apparent diameter disk.

On March 22nd the full Moon passes 2 degrees south of Jupiter.

Jupiter during March 2016 (credit:- freestarcharts)

Jupiter during March 2016 - pdf format (credit:- freestarcharts)

Saturn

Saturn, mag. +0.5, is located in the constellation of Ophiuchus. The planet starts the month rising around midnight from southern temperate locations but up to three hours later for those located further north. At the start of March, Saturn is only slightly fainter than Mars but by month's end the "Red planet" appears much brighter.

The beautiful "Ringed planet" reaches its first stationary point on March 25th thereafter retrograde motion commences. As a result Saturn will appear to move little against the "fixed" background stars this month. This also signals the start of this year's opposition period. By the end of March, Saturn rises around midnight from northern temperate latitudes but much earlier for those further south. Of course the rings are the planet's most famous feature and even a small telescope will show them along with a handful of moons including Titan, Rhea, Tethys, Dione, and Iapetus.

The Moon passes 4 degrees north of Saturn on March 2nd and again on March 29th.

Uranus

The first few days of March offers the last opportunity to view Uranus before it's lost to the bright dusk sky. The seventh planet from the Sun is currently located in Pisces and starts the month setting up to 3 hours after the Sun from northern latitudes but considerably less from locations further south. Binoculars will be required to spot the planet (mag. +5.9).

On March 11th the thin waxing crescent Moon passes 2 degrees south of Uranus.

Neptune

Neptune passed through solar conjunction at the end of February and from northern temperate locations remains too close to the Sun to be observed this month. However, during the second half of March observers at tropical and southern latitudes have the chance to spot the planet just before sunrise low down above the eastern horizon. At mag. +8.0 it's beyond naked eye visibility, requiring at least a pair of binoculars to be seen.

On March 20th brilliant Venus passes 0.5 degrees south of Neptune, the separation equivalent to the diameter of the full Moon. Of course, the brightness different between the two planets is extreme. At mag. -3.8, Venus is brilliant and about 10,000 times brighter Neptune. However it does act as a good marker when searching for much more distant Neptune. They are located in Aquarius.

Solar System Data Table March 2016

 DateRight AscensionDeclinationApparent MagnitudeApparent SizeIllum. (%)Distance from Earth (AU)Constellation
Sun5th Mar 201623h 03m 21.6s-06d 03m 13.2s-26.832.3'1000.992Aquarius
Sun15th Mar 201623h 40m 14.6s-02d 08m 17.1s-26.832.2'1000.995Pisces
Sun25th Mar 201600h 16m 42.9s01d 48m 32.9s-26.832.1'1000.997Pisces
Mercury5th Mar 201622h 07m 51.2s-13d 48m 02.7s-0.405.1"901.311Aquarius
Mercury15th Mar 201623h 13m 18.0s-07d 14m 22.7s-1.105.0"971.358Aquarius
Mercury25th Mar 201600h 22m 50.8s01d 13m 43.5s-2.105.0"1001.340Pisces
Venus5th Mar 201621h 33m 00.3s-15d 24m 36.1s-3.911.0"921.511Capricornus
Venus15th Mar 201622h 21m 17.6s-11d 29m 20.0s-3.810.7"931.553Aquarius
Venus25th Mar 201623h 08m 04.4s-07d 02m 55.2s-3.810.5"951.591Aquarius
Mars5th Mar 201615h 49m 47.6s-18d 45m 37.4s0.209.0"901.038Libra
Mars15th Mar 201616h 04m 02.8s-19d 34m 30.8s-0.109.9"910.942Scorpius
Mars25th Mar 201616h 15m 39.1s-20d 14m 27.5s-0.311.0"920.850Scorpius
Jupiter5th Mar 201611h 20m 06.6s05d 53m 34.2s-2.544.4"1004.438Leo
Jupiter15th Mar 201611h 15m 18.2s06d 24m 29.3s-2.544.4"1004.441Leo
Jupiter25th Mar 201611h 10m 42.1s06d 53m 16.6s-2.544.0"1004.476Leo
Saturn5th Mar 201616h 59m 14.5s-20d 58m 47.0s0.616.6"1009.990Ophiuchus
Saturn15th Mar 201617h 00m 20.3s-20d 59m 12.5s0.516.9"1009.824Ophiuchus
Saturn25th Mar 201617h 00m 43.6s-20d 58m 36.2s0.517.2"1009.662Ophiuchus
Uranus5th Mar 201601h 08m 18.7s06d 36m 22.7s5.903.4"10020.788Pisces
Uranus15th Mar 201601h 10m 13.9s06d 48m 19.7s5.903.4"10020.872Pisces
Uranus25th Mar 201601h 12m 15.9s07d 00m 53.0s5.903.4"10020.930Pisces
Neptune5th Mar 201622h 45m 21.1s-08d 45m 11.2s8.002.2"10030.946Aquarius
Neptune15th Mar 201622h 46m 45.6s-08d 36m 50.0s8.002.2"10030.918Aquarius
Neptune25th Mar 201622h 48m 07.1s-08d 28m 48.1s8.002.2"10030.863Aquarius