Click here for Dave's preview of sky events in 2017.
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.
For: January 2-8
Happy New Year, everyone! It should be an exciting year and my 2017 sky preview is now up on the planetarium web site. We begin the year with a beautiful view in the southwestern sky just after sunset. The crescent Moon is there with brilliant Venus to the lower right and Mars to the upper left. The three bodies will be in a straight line. On Wednesday at 8am the Earth reaches perihelion, the point in its orbit where it is closest to the Sun at 91,404,322 miles. That’s not a misprint – we’re closest in January. The Moon reaches first quarter on Thursday below and left of the Great Square of Pegasus.
For: January 9-15
Venus is at its farthest separation from the Sun on Wednesday at 47 degrees (or about five fists). Note how close Venus and Mars (to the upper left) are getting. But they’ll never meet as Venus will begin its trek back towards the Sun early next month. Thursday’s full Moon is the “Wolf Moon” as hungry wolves would howl outside of early villages this time of year. Thursday night is the first CU Astronomical Society meeting of the year (7pm at the planetarium). We’ll use the planetarium equipment and quickly look at the sky for the remainder of the year to check out the Moon and planet placements. Join us if you wish.
For: January 16-22
If you can stay up until 1am tomorrow morning, you’ll find a third quarter Moon rising in the east making a tight triangle with Jupiter (above) and the star Spica. If you can’t sleep and decide to stay up, Saturn rises just after 5am in the southwest and, about an hour later, Mercury makes an appearance. This weekend the planetarium opens for public programming. Join me for Winter Prairie Skies Friday night at 7pm followed by the premier of “The Stargazer” which features local astronomy celeb Dr. Jim Kaler who co-narrates with Nichelle Nichols. Big Bird and Elmo return to the dome Saturday at 7pm. See our web site for a full schedule!
For: January 23-29
Tomorrow morning, early risers can see a thin crescent Moon in the southeast next to Saturn. Look around 6am. Near 7pm all this week see if you can find the “Winter Triangle” in the southeast. While not a true constellation, the triangle consists of three very bright stars. Betelgeuse is the reddish star that marks the shoulder of Orion, the Hunter. Well below Betelgeuse is Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky and the heart of our large dog, Canis Major. Above and to the left is Procyon, the brightest in Canis Minor, the little dog. The name “Procyon” means “before the dog” as ancient skywatchers noted Procyon would rise just before Sirius.
For: January 30 – February 5
As at the beginning of the month, the Moon, Mars and Venus again make a very tight triangle in the southwest tomorrow night. It should be a beautiful sight! The Moon is farther east each night when, Sunday night, it is near the star Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, the Bull. The next “World of Science” talk at the planetarium is this Friday (7pm) and we welcome Dr. Thomas Loebel (Illinois State Archaeology Survey) to discuss how physics and archaeology meet when looking for ancient historic sites in the state. Admission is $2 at the door. For the closet rockers out there, “Dark Side of the Moon” returns this weekend at 9pm both Friday and Saturday night.
See Dave Leake's "Prairie Skies" column in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette each Monday morning.