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Venus a beacon in the western sky

Venus, the most brilliant of all the planets, shines in the western sky just after sunset. Venus will set about an hour after the sun at the start of March and half hour later at the end of March.

The next brightest planet Jupiter, will rise about 11 p.m. in early March and two hours earlier in late March. Notice the planet on the evening of the 29th, as it is near the moon. During this night you may watch the moon move eastward as it changes its position relative to Jupiter.

On March 14 look for Saturn and Mars next to each other, a mere 0.4apart, low in the east just before dawn. To the upper right will be the planet Mercury. Binoculars would be helpful. Do not look at the sun when it rises.

Mercury can be best seen about this time _ a week before and after the 18th of March.

Saturn will be next to Mars on the 14th and will continue to rise above the horizon passing Mercury on the 24th in the eastern sky at dawn.

Under dark skies (no moon or city lights), the zodiacal light is visible for an hour or two after sunset. It comes from the sunlight reflecting off fine dust along the ecliptic plane. Try March 13, 28, 29 and April 12.

The Vernal Equinox occurs at 3:28 p.m. on the 20th when the sun crosses the celestial equator. The length of night and day are equal and Spring begins. It is also the day the sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west.

At the planetariums

Both the Bishop Planetarium (Bradenton) and the Saunders Planetarium at MOSI in Tampa are offering More than Meets the Eye. This show is a comparison of celestial objects as seen through binoculars and small telescopes with views from spacecraft and large observatories.

The Bishop Planetarium is also offering The Cowboy Astronomer _ a light-hearted look at stars and constellations as recounted in cowboy tales around the campfire.

March 19 is Astronomy Day at the Bishop Planetarium. A free star show (first come, first served) is scheduled at 6:30 p.m. with a group of Deep Sky Observers. They are offering observing through their telescopes on the museum's front lawn. For more information call (813) 746-4132;

The Saunders Planetariums childrens star show is Larry Cat in Space. For more information call (813) 987-6300.

The Bishop Planetarium Offers Snooty's Great Space Adventure on Saturday mornings.

The Science Center of Pinellas County (near Tyrone Square Mall) offers laser shows on Saturday evenings. For more information call (813) 384-0027.

St. Petersburg Junior College Planetarium in St. Petersburg offers star identification on the first Friday and a show on the Hubble telescope at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. on the other Fridays.

Sky calendar

4th _ Last quarter moon.

12th _ New Moon.

14th _ Mars is within 0.4of Saturn near dawn.

19th _ First quarter moon. Vernal equinox is at 3:28 p.m. Spring begins.

27th _ Full moon.

28th _ The bright star Spica is above and to the left of the moon before dawn in the southwest.

Daryl L. Schrader is an astronomy and mathematics professor at St. Petersburg Junior College and teaches astronomy at the University of South Florida.