Click here for Dave's preview of sky events in 2016.
For: November 21-27
All this week, check out brilliant Venus in the southwest just after sunset. A telescope will show Venus appearing like a waxing gibbous Moon. If you get up early Friday morning, gaze to the southeast for the thin crescent Moon. The planet Jupiter will be above and right of the Moon and star Spica is below. After a long day of shopping, join me Friday night for the opening of “Season of Light” at the planetarium. The show focuses on the holiday traditions and stories that surround the winter solstice, the time of the year when the Sun is lowest in the sky. It is a great time to just sit back, relax, and enjoy our bright winter skies.
For: November 28-December 4
At 8pm all week you can witness the rising of the constellation of Orion, the Hunter due east. Orion and his three belt stars are probably the next most-recognized star group after the Big Dipper. I have vivid memories seeing these three stars as a kid rising above the trees from my home in Decatur. My dad called the belt and the sword stars beneath “the kite.” Friday night, the planetarium welcomes our friend Jim Kaler back to the dome for a “World of Science” talk on “Cosmic Dust.” The talk is at 7pm and admission is $2 at the door. At 9pm both Friday and Saturday, come see Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” the fulldome show.
For: December 5-11
Tonight, not far from due south, look for a thick crescent Moon just to the left of Mars. Mars is fading rapidly now as the distance between the Earth and Mars increases. Venus is doing the opposite. This month Venus increases altitude, becomes even brighter, and becomes larger through a telescope. Venus gets company this weekend as Mercury makes an appearance. Saturday is the best night. Draw an imaginary line from Mars, through brilliant Venus (to the lower right of Mars) and you are headed for Mercury. By early next week, Mercury will head back towards the Sun’s glare. On Saturday Mercury sets at 6pm, about 90 minutes after sunset. Look low in the southwest.
For: December 12-18
Grab your binoculars and get outside tonight to see an “occultation.” Occultations occur when the Moon passes in front of something else. Tonight, at about 9:48pm, the dark side of a nearly Full Moon will pass in front of the bright star Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, the Bull. Stick around as the star will reappear just after 11pm. See if you can see the star blink out, demonstrating that our Moon has no atmosphere. The full Moon occurs tomorrow. The December full Moon is beautiful but it also brightens the sky, making it tough to see any “shooting stars” from the Geminid Meteor shower, which peaks mid-week. The Geminids are a potent shower but you may only see the brighter meteors.
For: December 19-25
Wednesday brings us the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year. At 4:44am, the Sun will be directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. Note how long your shadows are at noon. “Solstice” means “Sun still” and we find that the Sun’s noon altitude does not change that much. Thursday before sunrise, you might catch a few meteors from the Ursid shower. The Ursids are normally pretty week (5-15 meteors per hour) but on occasion there have been outbursts of 100 per hour or more! What will we see? If you happen to be up Friday morning around 4am, look southeast for the crescent Moon making a nice triangle with Jupiter and the star Spica. Happy holidays, everyone!
For: December 26 – January 1
One of my favorite things to do is to shovel snow under a starry sky. In the east, Orion our mighty hunter, is rising with his three belt stars. Compare the stars Betelgeuse (upper left star, above the belt) to Rigel (lower right of the belt). See a color difference? To the lower left of the belt is Saiph and, to the upper right, is Belletrix. Here’s trivia on Belletrix – this was the star Charleton Heston thought he was visiting in the original “Planet of the Apes” movie! Follow the belt stars towards the horizon and watch the bright star Sirius. It will change colors! This is an atmospheric effect as you are looking through forty times more air near the horizon.
See Dave Leake's "Prairie Skies" column in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette each Monday morning.