This month we’re entering the best time of 2009 to see Saturn. The ringed planet, at opposition on March 8th, rises a bit before sunset and is visible all night. With its rings inclined at about 2.5 degrees to us, it climbs to nearly 60° up, plenty high enough for excellent views, weather permitting.
If you get tired of squinting at nearly edge-on rings, you can look at Saturn’s moons!
If you missed the Titan transits last month, there’s one more for the dedicated Titanophile, at 4 am on the morning of March 12, when Titan and its shadow will skim across Saturn’s north pole. Since Saturn’s poles are a bit dimmer than the rest of the planet, this might be a relatively easy transit to see ... if you can manage to be up at 4 am on a Thursday morning.
If you can’t quite manage that, there’s a much more convenient Rhea transit on March 21, a just-past-third-quarter Saturday night, lasting from 8 to just past 11 p.m. Rhea isn’t as big as Titan, but it’s still a sizable moon, and its shadow follows it closely across the face of Saturn. This all happens at about 54° up, so it should be a nice event for anyone out observing on a Saturday night.
Venus is at inferior conjunction on the 27th. Since it’s 8 degrees north of the sun, it may be possible, though difficult, to see it both at sunset and sunrise. Of course, it’s also possible to catch its very thin crescent during the day: make sure you set up in the shade of a building, so there’s no chance you might accidentally catch a magnified view of the sun, and sweep with binoculars if you don’t have a “goto” scope or one with setting circles.
Mercury, Mars and Jupiter are all in the morning sky, making a nice lineup for anyone who’s up early.
The asteroid 1 Ceres is still unusually bright this month– magnitude 6.9, just barely out of naked-eye reach for most people and most skies. It’s high in the sky, not too far from Saturn, floating above the back of Leo, moving through a corner of Leo Minor and moving fairly fast – it’ll move 5° west throughout March, so use a planetarium program or other reliable chart to figure out which point of light it is.
NASA had a little scare last month, when the Mars rover Spirit stopped moving and gave erratic responses regarding its position. The Rover team ran it through a series of diagnostic tests and although the cause of the problem is still unknown, Spirit seems to be back up and running again. We should all be prepared for this sort of thing, considering the rovers were designed for less than a two-month mission – but still, after five years of watching rover reports, I’ve gotten a bit attached to those little gals and I sure hope the NASA folks can keep them rolling. You go, Spirit and Opportunity!
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