The Milky Way visible in the night sky above the silhouette of a forest.

Eyes on the skies – March

Welcome to the Ontario Parks “Eyes on the Skies” series. This space (see what we did there?) will cover a wide range of astronomy topics with a focus on what can be seen from the pristine skies found in our provincial parks.

March is one of the most glorious months to be camping, or even just spend time outdoors enjoying our parks.

On March 19, the earth passes through Spring Equinox. This is the day that formally marks the beginning of spring and affords equal hours of sunlight and darkness.

Here are our astronomical highlights for March:

The sun

Sunrise through a row of evergreen trees in the snow

Sunrise and sunset times

March 1 March 15 March 31
Sunrise 6:53 a.m. 7:28 a.m. 6:59 a.m.
Midday 12:29 p.m. 1:26 p.m. 1:21 p.m.
Sunset 6:06 p.m. 7:24 p.m. 7:43 p.m.

In March, the orbit of the Earth around the Sun and the tilt of its axis of rotation provides us the observation of the Spring Equinox, when the Sun appears to lie on the celestial equator (an imaginary extension of the Earth’s equator into space).

Around this time of year, there are equal amounts of daylight and night. Interestingly, the equinoxes (both spring and fall) are not the days on which we have equal day and night.

This is due to a few factors, including that the fact that sunrise and sunset are not measured from the centre of the Sun but, rather from the point in which its upper edge rises or sets above or below the horizon.

The moon

The moon has long captivated observers of all ages.

March’s lunar phases of the moon occur as follows:

A chart showing the moon's phases in March 2023, starting with a Waxing Gibbous moon on March 4 and ending with a 1st Quarter moon on March 29

Did you know that many First Nations teachings, including those of the Anishinaabe and the Haudenosaunee people, use the back of a turtle’s shell as a lunar calendar?

The planets: the great Jupiter / Venus conjunction

The planets Jupiter and Venus put on an interesting show on March 1 when they are in conjunction.

A conjunction occurs when one planet appears, from our perspective, to pass by another planet. They do not have to come close to each other, just pass one another.

On the night of March 1, Venus and Jupiter will make a close approach conjunction. At that time, they will appear to be just a bit further apart from each other than the width of the full moon.

Image of a night sky with Jupiter and Venus highlighted
Conjunction of Jupiter and Venus on the night of March 1st. Image courtesy of SkySafari Pro Version 6.0

The planets are not really getting closer to each other in outer space. Rather, it is just the appearance of the two planets as seen from the Earth.

Image of night sky with planets Jupiter and Venus highlighted
Conjunction of Jupiter and Venus on the night of March 1st. Image courtesy of SkySafari Pro Version 6.0

This is one of those occasions where the science of astronomy differs from the ancient ideas of astrology. In the early days of astrology, it was believed that the planets were actually close to each other as it was unknown how the true configuration of the solar system was arranged.

Comets and Meteor showers

March is a quiet month from a meteor shower perspective. Nevertheless, observers are always able to see sporadic (random or unidentified shower) meteors as they may occur.

Black night sky with a shooting star.

On any given night, in the dark skies of provincial parks, one might see as many as five to 10 meteors per hour, especially after midnight.

March constellations

Constellation diagram

In last month’s blog, we discussed Gemini the Twins, as well as two other prominent constellations seen in the winter.

This month’s post will focus on three constellations that mark the transition from winter to spring: Leo the Lion, Cancer the Crab, and Coma Berenices.

This completes our review of March skies