Where are the Planets this month?

The Greater Hazleton Area Astronomical Society

March 2020 guide to the bright planets

In March 2020, Venus reaches a milestone in the west after sunset. Meanwhile, in the east before sunrise, Mars has a conjunction with Jupiter on March 20, and Saturn on March 31. For the Southern Hemisphere, a banner month for Mercury in the morning sky …

n early March 2020, use the lit side of the waxing moon to locate Venus, the sole bright planet in the March 2020 evening sky. You can’t miss Venus. It’s dazzlingly bright. People with good vision can even see Venus in a daytime sky.

We’re looking at the 4 bright morning planets on March 16, 2020, or before Mars showcases its conjunction with Jupiter on March 20, 2020. By the time that Mercury rises into the sky, the planets Mars and Saturn may have faded from view. But the moon and Jupiter, the brightest and second-brightest celestial objects in the morning sky, may well be visible. If so, an imaginary line from the moon and through Jupiter points to Mercury’s spot near the sunrise horizon. You might need binoculars to spot Mercury.

The waning crescent moon sweeps by all four morning planets from March 17 to 21, 2020. From northerly latitudes, however, you’ll probably need binoculars to spot Mercury and the March 21st moon.

Mercury’s greatest elongation in the morning sky happens on the same date as Venus’ greatest elongation in the evening sky: March 24, 2020. This chart is for temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, where the morning sky offers a much better view of Mercury than at northerly latitudes. 

Beginning the last week of March 2020, use the dazzling planet Venus to help you find the young moon closer to the horizon. 

Look for the moon in the vicinity of Venus for several days, centered on or near March 28, 2020.

Venus

Venus – the brightest planet – blazes mightily in the western sky after sunset. It’s the only bright planet to light up these March evenings all month long. Given clear skies, it’ll be hard to miss Venus, the third-brightest celestial body to light up the heavens, after the sun and moon. Some sharp-sighted people can even see Venus in a daytime sky.

Venus hits a big milestone, reaching its greatest elongation (46 degrees east) from the sun on March 24, 2020. This places Venus high in the western sky at sunset from around the world, with Venus lighting up the dark evening hours.

If you live at mid-to-far northern latitudes, you might be surprised at how high Venus appears at sundown, and also how long this planet stays out after dark. Whenever Venus reaches a greatest evening elongation in close concert with the spring equinox, Venus turns into a virtual night owl. Although Venus reaches a greatest evening elongation 5 times every 8 years, the favorable convergence of greatest elongation with the spring equinox only happens in cycles of 8 years. Enjoy Venus while the time is at hand!

From a far-northern Arctic outpost, such as Barrow, Alaska (71 degrees north latitude), Venus at its greatest elongation will actually be out all night (and all day) long, mimicking the midnight sun of summer. In fact, from that far north, Venus will become circumpolar (above the horizon all day long) starting around March 17, 2020, and Venus will remain circumpolar (that far north) throughout April 2020.

At mid-northern latitudes, Venus sets about 3 3/4 hours after sunset at the beginning of the month, and about 4 hours after sundown by the month’s end. What’s more, Venus will remain in good view all through April 2020.

At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Venus sets roughly 2 hours after sunset all month long. In the Southern Hemisphere, Venus’ greatest evening elongation coincides closely with the March autumn equinox, which restricts Venus’ presence to the early evening hours.

Look for the waxing crescent moon to join up with Venus in the constellation Taurus the Bull on March 28 and 29, 2020. Scroll upward to the top chart to contrast Venus’ position relative to the Pleiades star cluster at the beginning of the month.

Mercury

puts on a fine morning exhibition in March 2020 for the Southern Hemisphere. That’s because Mercury’s greatest elongation in the morning sky on March 24, 2020, closely coincides with the March autumn equinox, accentuating Mercury’s morning appearance.

In the Northern Hemisphere, Mercury’s greatest morning elongation occurs in close concert with the March spring equinox, which submerges Mercury’s appearance in the glow of dawn. From northerly latitudes, you’ll probably need binoculars to view Mercury before sunrise in March 2020. Even at that, Mercury will not be easy to spot.

Three other morning planets – Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – rise well before dawn all month long, and help you to locate Mercury near the sunrise point on the horizon. Look first for dazzling Jupiter and then draw an imaginary line from Jupiter through Saturn to locate Mercury near the horizon in the predawn/dawn sky.

For the Southern Hemisphere, March 2020 presents a most favorable month for catching Mercury in the morning sky. At the beginning of the month, from temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Mercury only rises about 35 minutes before the sun. By the month’s end, however, Mercury comes up better than 2 hours before sunrise. At its greatest morning elongation on March 24, Mercury rises a whopping 2 1/4 hours before the sun.

In early March, from mid-northern latitudes, Mercury rises about 35 minutes before the sun. By the month’s end, that’ll be around 50 minutes before sunrise. At greatest elongation on March 24, 2020, Mercury struggles to come up as much as one hour before the sun.

Watch for the slender waning crescent moon to sweep rather close to Mercury on the mornings of March 20 and 21, 2020.

Mars

Mars is the first bright planet to rise into the morning sky in the beginning of March 2020, followed by Jupiter and then Saturn. But in the great race of the morning planets, Mars will catch up with Jupiter around the March equinox, to pass 0.7 degrees to the south of Jupiter on March 20, 2020.

Then Mars will sweep by Saturn by the month’s end, to swing 0.9 degrees south of Saturn on March 31, 2020. In April 2020, Jupiter will be the first bright planet to rise in the morning sky, followed by Saturn and then Mars.

At mid-northern latitudes, Mars rises about 3 hours before the sun throughout March. At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Mars comes up nearly up about 5 hours before sunrise in early March, and nearly 6 hours before the sun at the month’s end.

Let the waning crescent moon help guide your eye to Mars (and nearby Jupiter!) for several mornings, centered on or near March 18.

Mars was in conjunction with the sun – or almost behind the sun as seen from Earth – on September 2, 2019. It remains far across the solar system from us, with Earth speeding around in its orbit, trying to catch Mars again. It’ll be some months before we catch Mars, the swiftest-moving superior planet. And so it is, always, for Mars, which alternates years appearing bright in our sky, or faint. 2019 was a dull year, but 2020 will be an exciting one, for Mars!

The excitement will build slowly, though. In March 2020 … you’ll still find Mars only modestly-bight, rather low in the southeast before dawn. We’ll be rushing along in our smaller, faster orbit, trying to catch up with Mars. As northern summer 2020 approaches, Mars will begin to change. It’ll brighten more dramatically as, finally, Earth begins to close in on Mars. The red planet will appear brightest in our sky – very bright indeed and fiery red – around the time of its opposition – when Earth passes between Mars and the sun – on October 13, 2020.

Jupiter

Jupiter – the second-brightest planet – is a morning planet all month long. At mid-northern latitudes, Jupiter rises about 2 1/2 hours before the sun in early March, and about 3 1/2 hours before the sun by the month’s end. At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Jupiter rises about 4 hours before the sun in early February, and about 5 3/4 hours before the sun by the month’s end.

Before sunrise on or near February 18, let the slender waning crescent moon help guide you to Jupiter (and nearby Mars!).

Watch for Jupiter to gain prominence in the morning sky throughout March 2020. On March 20, 2020, Jupiter and Mars will have a dazzling planetary conjunction in the predawn sky.

Saturn

Saturn is the last of a string of three bright morning planets – Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – to rise into the morning sky. Nonetheless, Saturn rises before dawn for most of the world (except far-northern latitudes). Look first for brilliant Jupiter and you’ll find Saturn a short hop to the east of Jupiter. Remember, east is in the direction of sunrise.

From mid-northern latitudes, Saturn rises about 2 hours before the sun at the beginning of the month, and about 3 hours before sunrise by the month’s end. From temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Saturn rises about 3 1/2 hours before sunrise in early March and about 5 3/4 hours before sunrise by the month’s end.

Watch for the waning crescent moon to swing close to Saturn on or near March 19.

What do we mean by bright planet? By bright 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 bright planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These planets actually do appear bright in our sky. They are typically as bright as – or brighter than – the brightest stars. Plus, these relatively nearby worlds tend to shine with a steadier light than the distant, twinkling stars. You can spot them, and come to know them as faithful friends, if you try.

Bottom line: In March 2020, Venus lights up the west after sunset. Before sunrise, at the beginning of the month, you’ll find a string of planets in the east: Mars at top, Saturn at bottom, and very bright Jupiter in between. In the great race of the planets, Mars catches up with Jupiter on March 20, and then Saturn on March 31.