Welcome to the March night sky. This is the month of the spring equinox, when the Sun crosses the celestial equator heading north. Currently at this time of the year, the planet Earth has 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness. This marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere.
Soon after sunset in March, the red planet Mars will still be visible low on the southwestern horizon. Mars is moving away from planet Earth now and it will appear very small even in large telescopes. Mars is now three times further away than when it was at its closest. On the night of March 11, the crescent Moon will be seen below the red planet.
Last month, Nasa announced the end of the Opportunity Rover Mission on Mars. This rover has been very successful as it lasted 15 years and travelled 45kms over the surface of Mars. A planet wide dust storm in June 2018 was the probable cause of the eventual failure of this mission. Its sister rover, called Spirit, lasted six years and travelled about 8kms before getting stuck in the dust and having drive problems.
As these missions were designed to last 90 Mars days, the fact that they both lasted so long is a big success.
A previous Nasa rover called Sojourner touched down on July 4, 1997 and travelled just 100 metres and lasted 85 days. There is another lander called Curiosity that has been in operation on the surface of Mars for seven years. This machine is much bigger and more capable than the previous three, and up until now has travelled 20kms and is still active. This rover is nuclear-powered, so it does not have the limitations of the previous solar-powered ones.
The next Nasa rover is called simply Mars 2020 as it is intended to be launched on July 17, 2020 and to touch down on the surface of Mars on February 18, 2021. The landing site is to be in a crater called Jezero, where ancient rivers once flowed. This area is considered to be the best for the discovery of any evidence of life on the red planet.
Previously, the landers have chosen areas that are less rugged in order to maximise the chance of a safe touchdown. Now, with more experience and more capable hardware, Nasa is going for more exciting but potentially more dangerous landing sites.
The Moon is new on the 6th, first quarter on the 14th, full on the 21st and last quarter on March 28.
By Clive Jackson
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Clive Jackson is the Director of the Camera Obscura (next to the Castle in Tavira), specialising in education and public outreach.
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To see the March Sky Map click on the pdf link below