March star map
What’s in the sky this March?
Constellations represent groups of stars that have been given a name and more recently a border. For millennia they have been used as a tool to share significant cultural stories, events and as markers. Today, the 88 western constellations used here help astronomers map the sky and search for astronomical objects. This March these constellations dominate the autumn sky:
- Taurus – the bull, possibly the oldest of all western constellations, is low in the northwest. It is home to M1 the crab nebula formed by a star that exploded in 1054, M45 the Pleiades, a striking open cluster and the dying star Aldebaran. Aldebaran is 65 light years from the Sun and is 44 times wider but only a little more massive (+16%). It has exhausted its core supply of hydrogen fuel and is now ‘burning’ hydrogen in a shell around a helium core.
- Orion – the hunter, is descending into March’s north-western sky sitting above Taurus the bull and followed by the faithful Canis Major. One of the most famous non-zodiac constellations, its three-star belt, lies close to the celestial equator. These stars also make the base of what many Australians refer to as the base of the saucepan. Within the handle of the saucepan, or the sword for the traditionalists, a star making cloud, or nebula at around 1,350 light years away is one of the first things to look at through a telescope. M42 or the Orion nebula, contains enough gas and dust to make as many as 2,000 stars like the Sun. It is a stunning object to view on a dark moonless night.
- Leo – the lion, rising in the north-east, looks more like an upside-down question mark for those in the south than a lion’s mane as seen from the north. One of Ptolemy’s original 48 constellations from the 2nd century. Its brightest star Regulus (Little King) is a system of four tightly bound stars at 79 light years. Leo is host to several bright galaxies though these require large telescopes in dark locations to be seen. They are popular targets for amateur astro-photographers.
- Canis Major – high overhead lies the constellation of Canis Major, the greater dog. Like many other constellations, a good imagination, and the ability to ‘see’ stick figures characters will help see the side profile of a dog. It hosts the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius. A hot white star at just 8.6 light years it is the 7th closest.
- Crux – the Southern Cross, the smallest of the 88 commonly accepted constellations. It and the pointers of Alpha and Beta Centauri are making their return to the evening sky low in the south-east. Light pollution and the thicker atmosphere near the horizon dims their starlight. They are at their highest and brightest at around 2am, due south. To find south, draw an imaginary line from the top of Crux though the bottom and across the sky to the brightest star in the constellation of Eridanus the river, Achernar. This is the least spherical star in the Milky Way with an equatorial bulge of about 50% more than its polar circumference. Halfway along the line, drop to the horizon to find south.
All 5 naked eye planets are found in the March morning sky in 2022.
- Mercury – elusive as always it starts the month in Capricornus before moving into Aquarius in the second week then hiding in the in the glare of twilight. On 3 March it is very close to Saturn and on 21-22 it is close to Jupiter though this pairing will require a perfect easterly view between 6 and 6:20am AEDT.
- Venus – low in the east starts the month in Sagittarius, passing through Capricornus and then into Aquarius. Early in the month it is close to Mars. On 21 March, Venus will be at its greatest angle from the Sun at 44degrees. On 28 and 29 it is very close to Saturn and the waning Moon.
- Mars – starts March in Sagittarius before moving into Capricornus at the end of the first week. On 28 and 29 March it will be close to Venus, Saturn and the Moon.
- Jupiter – spends the month in Aquarius but is too close to the Sun for the first half to see. On 31 March, the waning crescent Moon is below and to the south of Jupiter.
- Saturn – in Capricornus is close to Mercury on 3 March and the waning Moon on 29 March.
For the monthly movements of the Moon, check out our Moon Phase Calendar.
The Autumn equinox, when the Sun crosses from the southern to the northern sky, occurs on 21 March at 2:33am AEDT. On this day, the Sun rises and sets due east and west. The length of day and night is almost equal but not quite.
Explore the universe through binoculars or a telescope and take in these gems of the March sky:
- Milky Way – as seen from dark rural locations on a moonless night is perfect at this time of year around midnight. The faint glow of billions of stars extends from the low southeast across the sky to the northwest. No telescope is required and look for the head and neck of the emu in the sky.
- Great Nebula in Carina (NGC3372) – rising high into the southeast, it is more than four times larger than the more famous Orion nebula. The distance of around 7,500 light years disguises its immense size of around 500 light years in diameter. On a moonless night it is a stunning view through binoculars or a telescope. It contains some of the youngest star clusters in the Milky Way as well as one star coming to an explosive death. The star Eta Carinae at 100-150 times the mass of the Sun is a dying cataclysmic variable which is expected to explode as a supernova anytime within the next million years. A supernova precursor eruption in the 1840s temporarily elevated it to the second brightest star in the night sky.
- Open clusters NGC 3293 and 3532, both in Carina, are excellent targets for binocular and telescope viewing. NGC 3532 was the first target of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990. It contains around 150 stars thought to be 300 million years old at a distance of 1,300 light years. NGC 3293 is much younger at 6-20 million years but around 8,000 light years away.
- Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are two of our Milky Way’s satellite galaxies. The Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) in the constellation of Dorado is about 163,000 light years away, while the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) in Tucana is about 206,000 light years away. They are the brightest in the local group of about 30 nearby galaxies but are best seen away from cities and towns on moonless nights. They look like small parts of the Milky Way that have drifted away but are in fact approaching and are expected to merge with us in around 2.4 billion years.
- Tarantula Nebula (NGC 2070) – is a huge starburst nebula of hydrogen gas approximately 1,000 light years in diameter and 450,000 more massive than the Sun. It sits on the leading edge of the LMC, and several young massive stars have already exploded with the cloud.
- M45 the Pleiades – one of the more famous open clusters visible to the naked eye, lies within Taurus. Like all open clusters it is a group of young to middle aged stars. In this case around 100 million years old at about 444 light years. Many images show the stars associated with a dusty blue nebula however this lies between us and the stars. Curiously, these stars are often referred to as seven sisters.
- Orion nebula (M42) – the finest and brightest nebula in the sky, is now descending to the northwest. Sitting close to the celestial equator it is visible to the unaided eye in Orion’s sword from both hemispheres. It is approximately 1,344 light years away and 24 light years across. 700 young stars are in various stages of formation with 6 visible in the Trapezium in the heart of the nebula. In simple astrophotography with a DSLR on a tripod it starts to show the pink star-making colour of hydrogen gas but through telescopes and binoculars it is mostly grey green.
- The two brightest stars at night are now clearly visible overhead in the early evening. Sirius, the dog star in Canis Major, is a binary star just 8.6 light years away. It is twice the mass of the Sun and 25 times brighter. Ancient Egyptians used observations of Sirius to determine the length of the year to be 365 and a quarter days, on average. Canopus in the constellation of Carina is 8 times more massive than the Sun and 10,000 times brighter. Its distance of 310 light years drops it to the second brightest star as we see it at night.
- The dying variable red supergiant Betelgeuse in the constellation of Orion in the northwest sky is about 550 light years away and 750 times the size of the Sun. It will eventually explode as a supernova and leave a neutron star behind approximately 1.5 times the mass of the Sun. It is expected to explode sometime in the next 100,000 years…so, keep watching.
- Purchase the 2022 Australasian Sky Guide by Dr Nick Lomb, featuring an annual report of what’s in the sky and the latest astronomical findings. Produced by MAAS Media.
- View the March Sky Chart, which shows the stars, constellations and planets visible in the night sky from anywhere in Australia.
- Watch our March Southern Sky Livestream with Sydney Observatory’s astronomy partners on Sydney Observatory’s Facebook.
- Check out these resources for getting started.