Spring begins as Venus exits the evening sky and Mercury emerges.
Although Venus has descended into twilight’s glare, we still have two planets to enjoy at dusk thanks to the appearance of Mercury. The swift little world is low in the west but shines at magnitude –1.1, which makes it easier to spot if you have a reasonably unobstructed horizon. Planet #2 is, as it has been for months and months, Mars. At magnitude 1.4, the red planet is an easy find in the western sky, sitting roughly 15 degrees high at dusk. Neither Mercury nor Mars are rewarding telescopic sights at the moment. For a suitable high-power subject, you have to wait for Jupiter, which rises at around 9 p.m., local daylight time. Hold off inspecting the –2.4-magnitude planet in your scope until around 11 p.m. to give it enough time to climb above the worst of our atmosphere’s blurring effects. Last up is Saturn, which clears the southeast horizon shortly after 2:30 a.m. Saturn is at its best at around 6 a.m. when the 0.5-magnitude object reaches its highest point in the sky, just before morning twilight begins to seriously interfere with your views of those glorious rings.
The spring equinox occurs this morning at 6:29 a.m., EDT. We can officially say goodbye to winter.
The Moon reaches last-quarter phase at 11:58 a.m., EDT. It rises shortly after 3 a.m., local daylight time, on March 21.
This morning at 6:18 a.m., EDT, Venus is in conjunction with the Sun and transitions from being the evening “star” to being the morning “star.” The planet will be visible low in the east shortly before sunrise a few days later.
The Moon is new today at 10:57 p.m., EDT. With the nights rapidly growing shorter, this is one of the prime moonless stretches in spring.
The Moon is absent from the evening sky over the March 24 – 26 weekend, which makes this an ideal opportunity for some deep-sky viewing. The end of March is an interesting time. The constellations of winter are still up as the last traces of twilight fade, and the galaxy-rich areas in Leo and Virgo are approaching the meridian. But sandwiched in between these regions is a small, dim constellation that doesn’t get a lot of attention: Cancer, the crab.
Take some time to enjoy the splendours offered by this modest grouping. Start with the lovely open cluster M44, also known as the Beehive Cluster. M44 is a fine binocular object that’s easy to locate; the one-degree-wide clump of stars is parked midway and a little west of a line joining Delta (δ) and Gamma (γ) Cancri. At magnitude 3.9, Delta is Cancer’s brightest star. Another delightful open cluster is M67. Under a dark sky the little stellar gathering is visible in binoculars as a fuzzy patch, but M67 shows best in a telescope at moderate magnification.
The celestial crab is also home to a number of fine double stars, including Iota (ι) Cancri. Iota is a striking sight in small telescopes: it features a 4.1-magnitude yellow star contrasting with a 6.0-magnitude blue companion, separated by a generous 31 arc seconds. The two are easily split in any scope used at low power.
Two bright open clusters and a showpiece double—not a bad haul for such an inconspicuous constellation.
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