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March madness takes to the night sky

By Deane Morrison

Our moon put on quite a show during February’s lunar eclipse. In March, the moon can’t reproduce that kind of glory, but it seems to make an effort by pairing itself with stars and planets all month long.

In fact, we can get a good picture of the night sky just by tagging along with the moon as it makes its rounds.

The predawn hour of the 2nd finds a waning moon among the starts of the Teapot of Sagittarius, not far from brilliant Jupiter, which hovers just to the east. On the 5th, a thin, elderly crescent prods Mercury and Venus just above the predawn horizon.

A new moon arrives on the 7th, as our sister orb passes in front of the sun. The next evening, its tender young crescent hangs close to the horizon in the west, with the rest of the lunar disk glowing in earthshine.

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On the 14th, a half moon sits in the middle of the bright knot of well-known winter constellations. The reddish beacon near its nether tip is Mars, still bright but rapidly fading as Earth leaves it behind in the orbital race.

Continuing its eastward odyssey, the waxing moon meets Leo, the lion. On the night of the 18th, it lines up with Regulus, the bright star at the lion’s heart, and Saturn, now east of Regulus and drawing slowly closer. Saturn and Regulus will appear together for several more months, but the moon keeps moving on.

At evenfall on the 21st, a moon just six hours past full rises in Virgo.

This moon was known to the Algonquin Indians as the worm moon for the softening of the ground and the reappearance of earthworm casts at this time of year.

Other tribes knew it as the crow moon, for the cawing that ushers in the end of winter; the crust moon, for the hard top layer of snow that has melted and refrozen; or the sap moon, to augur the start of the maple sugaring season.

This full moon appears in an open area of sky, but it soon resumes visiting other celestial objects. On the 22nd, the now-waning moon rises just ahead of Spica, the brightest star in Virgo. Around 4 a.m. on the 27th, the moon slips right below the giant red Antares in Scorpius. And as the 30th dawns, early risers can watch a thick crescent rise in company with Jupiter, having completed its tour of the sky.

In March, the sun hurries northward, pulling with it the circle of daylight that continually bathes our globe.

At our latitude, March begins with about 11 hours and 11 minutes of daylight; on the 31st, we’re up to 12 hours and 45 minutes — a pace of more than three minutes a day. For real speed, through, imagine living in a city as far north as Anchorage, Alaska. During March, it gains two hours and 53 minutes of daylight, or more than five and a half minutes per day.

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The vernal equinox arrives at 12:48 a.m. CDT on the 20th, the day the sun passes over the equator and we experience equal day and night.

If you could see Earth from space, it would be lighted from pole to pole on its sunward face. The equinox also brings a switch in the pattern of day length. From that moment until the fall equinox, the farther north you go, the longer the sun is up.

Daylight Saving time returns at 2 a.m. on March 9, the moment when clocks officially move forward an hour.

The University of Minnesota offers public star viewings at its Morris, Duluth and Twin Cities campuses.

Deane Morrison works for University Relations at the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota.

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