March was the first month on the oldest Roman calendar. It is also named after the Roman god of war – Mars. It is fitting that the planet Mars will more than double in brightness this month and grow 30 percent in size as it rapidly approaches its opposition on April 8.

The red planet will begin its retrograde, or westward, motion against the fixed background of stars right on March 1. It will then appear to start drifting toward Leo the Lion and will reach the midpoint of that retrograde motion on April 8, when it will be closest to Earth and at its biggest and brightest. Look for a nearly full moon to pass just below Mars one hour before sunrise in the south-southwestern sky on the 19th and then pass just below Saturn two mornings later.

You can already start looking for some of the features on the Martian surface through a good small telescope. It will have its best opposition in seven years, but it will still not be a particularly good one because it will only reach 15.1 arc seconds wide on April 8. It will reach nearly twice that size, 24.3 arc seconds in July 2018. It reaches opposition every 26 months.

In the great opposition of Aug. 27, 2003, Mars reached nearly 30 arc seconds in width and got within 35 million miles of Earth, which was its closest opposition in nearly 60,000 years. That generated a lot of interest in astronomy, which is good, but it also generated some false hype when it was rumored that Mars would reach the size of the full moon. The full moon and the sun cover 30 arc minutes, which is half a degree of the sky, which is still 60 times larger than Mars reached back in 2003.

The retrograde loops that all the superior planets make are only visible as such because we are seeing it from our limited perspective stuck on the surface of Earth within the ecliptic plane of our solar system. All the planets are actually orbiting counterclockwise around the sun at different speeds. Mercury moves the fastest at about 30 miles per second, Venus at about 21.7m/s, Earth at 18.6m/s, Mars at 15m/s, all the way out to Neptune at only 3.4 m/s, which is still quite fast at over 12,000 miles per hour, but almost six times slower than we move around the sun at all times.

Every time a planet comes closer than usual to Earth is a good time to get a better understanding of all the wonderful and unique patterns and rhythms always going on in the great celestial dance. That is where art and science, poetry and music meet and show us what nature beyond the earth has already accomplished.

This will be a great month to enjoy the warmer and longer days and shorter nights. . This year the vernal equinox will happen at 12:57 p.m. EDT on Thursday the 20th. That moment is further defined by the sun on the ecliptic crossing over the celestial equator on an upward path. Within a few days, the days will be 12 hours long everywhere except at the poles. The two equinoxes are also the only two days each year that the sun rises due east and sets due west everywhere on Earth except for the poles.

Jupiter is slowly fading in Gemini. It will not appear to move much this month since it will end its retrograde motion toward Taurus on the 6th and then resume its normal eastward motion toward Cancer. The King of the Planets is now just about as high as it can ever get for observers near our latitude. Watch the waxing gibbous moon pass just below Jupiter during the evenings of the 9th and 10th.

Saturn rises in Libra before midnight and will reach its highest in our sky about three hours before sunrise. The ringed planet will begin its own retrograde motion on March 6 and will reach its opposition about one month after Mars, on May 10. By an unusual coincidence, four of the five brightest planets and the two brightest asteroids, Ceres and Vesta, will all end or begin their normal eastward motion across our sky within just eight days of each other. Mercury will be on Feb. 27, Ceres and Mars on March 1, Saturn on the 3rd, Vesta on the 5th and Jupiter on the 6th.

Venus can be seen low in the east–southeastern morning sky one hour before sunrise this month. Watch the waning crescent moon pass just above Venus on the morning of March 27.

One more really exciting event will happen this month, but it will only be visible over a narrow path over Canada and New York. On March 20 at 2:06 a.m., a few hours before spring begins, an asteroid named Erigone will occult the bright star Regulus in the constellation of Leo for about 14 seconds. It will cut a shadow path at least 45 miles wide, which is its diameter, from the Atlantic Ocean and on up through New York and Canada. Its shadow will zip right along at 3.2 miles per second, which is 11,400 miles per hour, or about six times slower than the Earth moves around the sun.

Erigone will be 110 million miles away, so there is no danger, but we will be able to get a detailed shadow image of it to a resolution of better than one mile. Its irregular shape will be nicely outlined by light streaks of the star Regulus. Check out www.occultations.org.

MARCH HIGHLIGHTS

March 1. New moon is at 3 a.m. EST.

March 2. Pioneer 10 was launched on this day in 1972.

March 3. Pioneer 4 was launched on this day in 1959.

March 4. Jupiter’s ring was discovered on this day in 1979.

March 6. On this day in 1986 the Soviet Vega 1 spacecraft flew by Halley’s Comet. The Kepler Observatory was launched on this day in 2009. It continually monitored the brightness of 145,000 stars in a region of sky in Cygnus. As of last May, when the second of its four reaction wheels failed, it had confirmed 134 new planets in 76 solar systems along with another possible 3,200 planets. Even much more amazing than that, NASA recently announced there could be as many as 11 billion Earth-like planets orbiting sun-like stars in the habitable zone where water can remain in liquid form.

March 8. First quarter moon is at 8:27 a.m. Active volcanoes were found on Io, one of Jupiter’s four large Galilean moons, on this day in 1979.

March 9. Daylight saving time begins at 2 a.m.

March 13. On this day in 1781 William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus.

March 14. Albert Einstein was born on this day in 1879.

March 16. Full moon is at 1:08 p.m. EDT. This is also known as the Worm, Sap, Crow or Lenten Moon.

March 20. The asteroid Erigone will occult the bright star Regulus this morning at 2 am. The vernal equinox is at 12:57 p.m. EDT.

March 22. On this day in 1997 Comet Hale-Bopp made its closest approach to Earth.

March 23. After 15 years in space the Russian MIR space station re-entered the atmosphere on this day in 2001.

March 25. On this day in 1655 Christian Huygens discovered Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. On this day in 1996, Comet Hyakutake made its closest approach to Earth.

March 30. New moon is at 2:45 p.m. The second new moon in the same month is called the black moon.