Skynotes: March 2024

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Autumn Equinox

On Wednesday 20th we reach equinox with equal lengths of day and night – Autumn Equinox in the southern hemisphere and Spring (or Vernal) Equinox in the northern hemisphere. We are midway between summer and winter solstices, and our planet’s axis leans neither toward nor away from the Sun.

See Equinox: Almost Equal Day and Night

Melbourne Sun times

Date Rise Set Day length Solar noon*
Friday 1st 7:04am 7:59pm 12:54 hours 1:32pm
Monday 11th 7:14am 7:45pm 12:30 hours 1:30pm
Thursday 21st 7:24am 7:29pm 12:05 hours 1:27pm
Sunday 29th 7:33am 7:14pm 11:41 hours 1:24pm

*When the sun is at its highest, crossing the meridian or local longitude.

Moon phases

Phase Date
Third Quarter Monday 4th
New Moon Sunday 10th
First Quarter Sunday 17th
Full Moon Monday 25th

Moon distances

Lunar apogee (furthest from Earth) is on Sunday 24th at 406,294 km.
Lunar perigee (closest to Earth) is on Sunday 10th at 356,895 km.

Visible Planets

Mercury has had its solar conjunction but still too close to the Sun to view this month.

Venus is still visible in the early morning low in the east but is moving closer to the Sun for solar conjunction. It can be seen this month from around 5:20am, and a little earlier each morning, before it fades in the dawn light ahead of sunrise. During March It will sink slowly to the horizon passing Saturn which rises.

Mars is now visible again returning to our morning skies after its passage behind the Sun. It is visible from around 4:40am rising before Venus.

Jupiter is soon to pass behind the Sun but remains visible low in the north-west from around 8pm before setting by 10pm.

Saturn, after its solar conjunction, is still too close to the sun sitting below the eastern horizon at sunrise. However, by late March it will begin to appear in the east before sunrise below Venus and gradually ascend past Venus as that planet descends.

Triple Planetary Line-Up

Enjoy the sight of three planets moving positions this month in the east before dawn. An extended triple line-up occurs in March with Mars, Venus and Saturn. If you observe over the second half of March you can see Saturn day by day ascend and overtake Venus while Venus descends to the horizon.

Here are two Stellarium views both looking east at 5.30am on March 15 and two weeks later on March 30. Mars remains high in the east, but during that time Saturn and Venus gradually swap positions.

March 15, looking East with Mars, Venus and Saturn in the pre-dawn light.
March 30, looking East with Mars high. Saturn is now above Venus which is much lower in the morning sky.


The gamma Normids meteors peak around the 15th of this month. They are centred near the star Gamma Normae, the third brightest star in Norma, the level which lies between Scorpius and Centaurus. They are a minor shower and it would be best to look from midnight to dawn from a dark sky location.

See Gamma Normids

Stars and constellations

In the north and north-west

Orion, the hunter is the north after sunset and upside down here in the southern hemisphere with three bright stars forming Orion’s Belt (or the base of The Saucepan from our southern perspective. The fuzzy object in the centre of his scabbard (which runs to the upper left) is M42, the Orion nebula. Lower right in Orion is the red supergiant star Betelguese which has an obvious orange-red colour, and to the upper left in Orion is the blue-giant star Rigel.

To the left of Orion and lower down is Taurus the bull, its head an inverted V. This is the open grouping known as the Hyades with a foreground red-giant star Aldebaran at the end of the open V. This month the Red Planet, Mars, is below and nearby.

To the left in the north-west but lower down sits M45, the beautiful Pleiades Cluster. Over 1000 stars form the cluster but at 444 light years only a few are bright enough to be seen with the naked eye. For some cultures those few bright stars represent a group of women, and they are often referred to as the Seven Sisters. In New Zealand-Aotearoa the cluster is Matariki whose appearance marks the start of the Maori New Year.

The Pleaides open star cluster (M45 in Charles Messier’s 1771 catalogue), an image released in 2009 by the European Southern Observatory. Credit: ESO/S.Brunie

In the north-east

To the north-east and high in the evening sky sits the brightest star at night, Sirius in Canis Major (greater dog) while directly below is Procyon in Canis Minor (lesser dog).

The bright star Regulus is in the north-east which gives us the location for Leo, the lion recognisable with his head and mane making an inverted question mark in the sky.

In the south-east

As always, the Southern Cross or Crux can be seen in our skies. This time of the year it sits on its side with the Two Pointers (Alpha and Beta Centauri, the brightest and second brightest stars in Centaurus) lying below.

If you are in a dark sky location and can see the vast band of the Milky Way (billions of stars that form part of the galaxy), then you can see the dark cloud known as the Coal Sack sitting beside the Southern Cross. Such interstellar dust clouds are major features of the galaxy embedded in its disc of stars and nebulae. Our visible light view further into the galaxy is hampered by these dense cold fields of dust but, fortunately, infrared telescopes that can detect heat are better able to pierce the veil of dust and see what lies beyond.


ESA - Why the Infrared?

Sciencing - How Does an Infrared Telescope Work?


International Space Station

ISS orbits every 90 minutes at an average distance of 400 km. It appears like a bright star moving slowly across the night sky.

Here are some bright passes visible from the Melbourne region.


Thursday 21st 6:17am to 6:23am, West-North-West to South-East.


Friday 1st 8:52pm to 8:59pm, South-West to North-East.

Heavens Above gives predictions for visible passes of space stations and major satellites, live sky views and 3D visualisations. Be sure to first enter your location under ‘Configuration’.

On this day

1st 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia (USA) disintegrated on re-entry killing all seven astronauts and halting the shuttle program for over two years.

1st 1970, US astronomer Vera Rubin finds evidence of ‘dark matter’ by studying motion of stars and galaxy rotation not consistent with Newton’s laws.

3rd 1996, Luna 9 (USSR) made first soft-landing on moon and sent first panoramic images from the Ocean of Storms.

4th 1976, Lunar Orbiter 3 (USA) launches to the moon to select Apollo landing sites.

5th 1963, Dutch astronomer Maarten Schmidt discovers quasars (quasi-stellar radio sources).

7th 1979, Pluto moves inside Neptune’s orbit for the first time since its 1930 discovery.

8th 1969, the Allende meteorite, the largest carbonaceous meteorite found, lands near the village of Allende, Mexico.

9th 1986, first module of Mir space station (USSR) is launched into Earth orbit.

9th 1986, last visit of Comet Halley met by flotilla of probes (notably ESA’s Giotto) with comet’s next return due mid-2061.

9th 1473, birth of Nicholas Copernicus, famous for his sun-centred theory in On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres (1543) which triggered the Copernican Revolution.

9th 1975, Soyuz 17 (USSR) returns to earth setting Soviet record of 29 days in space.

11th 2003, first measurements using WMAP (Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe) data to reveal relic Big Bang temperature as a variation across the universe.

12th 1947, 100 tonne iron meteorite falls in Sikhote Alin, southeast Russia. Largest in recorded history, brighter than the sun, with deafening sound and a smoke trail lasting several hours.

12th 1961, Venera 1 probe (USSR) launched to Venus by Soviet Union.

12th 2001, NEAR Shoemaker (USA) is first probe to land on an asteroid - 433 Eros.

13th 2004, discovery of ‘largest diamond’, white star BPM 37093, is announced.

14th 1990, Voyager 1 (USA) takes famous ‘pale blue dot’ picture of Earth as it looks back while speeding out of solar system.

15th 1564, birth of astronomer, physicist and engineer Galileo Galilei in Pisa, Italy. Supported heliocentric solar system, and studied motion, telescopes, moons of Jupiter, rings of Saturn, phases of Venus, Sun spots, and features of the moon.

15th 2013, 20meter Chelyabinsk meteor explodes 30km over Southern Urals, Russia, travelling at 60,000kph with shock wave damaging buildings and causing many injuries due to flying glass.

16th 1771, Charles Messier’s catalogue of 100 deep space objects.

17th 1965, Ranger 8 (USA) probe launched to image the moon in aid of Apollo landings.

18th 1930, Clyde Tombaugh (USA) discovers Pluto using a blink comparator in a systematic search for the supposed ‘Planet X’ beyond Neptune.

20th 1962, first American astronaut into orbit, John Glenn, in Mercury Friendship 7 in three orbits lasting almost 5 hours.

22nd 1632, Galileo publishes Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems which compared solar system models and led to conflict with and censure by the Catholic Church.

23rd 1987, SN1987A, closest and brightest supernova since 1054 observed in Large Magellanic Cloud 168,000 light years away. Visible to naked eye for months.

24th 1968, post-graduate student Jocelyn Bell (Northern Ireland) discovers first pulsars.

26th 1966, first Saturn 1B rocket launch, which led to Saturn V Apollo missions.

27th 1942, JS Hey (UK) discovered radio emissions coming from the Sun.

28th 1997, first evidence for gamma ray bursts (GRB) as extra-galactic energy sources.

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