March is Messier month.
Born in 1730, French astronomer Charles Messier was a comet hunter. He discovered more than a dozen during his professional career. As he searched the night sky, he was annoyed by the "fuzzy" objects that looked like comets in his small telescope but did not move against the background of stars like comets do. To avoid confusion, he compiled a list of the fuzzy things. Today the "Messier Catalog" lists 109 objects.
It is possible during March to see all 109 in one night: a "Messier Marathon." Observers in the southern part of the country have the best shot, since a couple of the objects appear quite low in the southern sky.
You'll need dark sky, a 3-inch or larger scope, a clear view of the southern horizon, a detailed star chart and patience. A computerized, "go-to" scope makes the task easier. Taking part in a Messier star party helps, too.
The annual All Arizona Messier Marathon is the most popular gathering of the sort, and it is ideally situated for the task. This year it takes place March 28 and 29 near Arizona City (south of Phoenix). For details visit www.saguaroastro.org.
Daylight Saving Time kicks in March 8, so you'll have to wait a little longer for evening viewing. Time springs forward, but spring doesn't arrive until 5:45 a.m. March 20.
You won't have to wait for dark to spot our closest planetary neighbor, Venus. Still the "evening star" until late in the month, you should be able to pick it out in the western sky just after sunset. Steady binoculars or a telescope will reveal Venus' crescent phase. The planet will be lost in the sun's glare by the third week of March because it's headed toward inferior conjunction (between Earth and sun) on the 25th. It'll be back in the predawn sky in April.
After dark, you'll be able to spot Saturn (magnitude 0.5) in the constellation Leo. Look for it high in the southern sky. It reaches opposition on March 8, being opposite the sun as viewed from Earth. Right now, its ring system is tilted only about 3 degrees, providing a rather unusual appearance.
Dwarf planet Ceres, the largest asteroid, also can be found in Leo early in March. It shines at magnitude 6.6. You'll need a small scope to see it. It moves into and through Leo Minor then back into Leo during the month.
Mercury, Mars and Jupiter are hiding near the eastern horizon before dawn, rising about an hour before the sun. Jupiter rises a little earlier each day and should be visible by the second week of the month. Mercury soon will swap positions with Venus, and following superior conjunction March 30, will be visible low in the west after sunset during April.
firstname.lastname@example.org Lewis McCool gazes at stars through a 10-inch Dobsonian from his Dolores home.