Read Dave Leake's preview of sky events for 2014
For: July 7-13
Tonight, look for a waxing gibbous Moon below the planet Saturn. All this week (and really all this month), Mercury makes its best appearance in the morning sky. Tomorrow morning, it rises at 4:30 a.m. and, by the weekend, it rises at 10 minutes earlier. Look low in the northeast to the lower left of Venus about 45 minutes before sunrise. Sunday evening, Mars passes about a degree north of the blue star Spica. You can actually watch a planet orbit the Sun as you compare Mars’ nightly west to east motion to the star’s position. Given Mars is the next planet out, its motion should be apparent even after a few days.
For: July 14-20
Here’s some sky trivia for you. Look for Saturn in the south about a third of the way up in the sky. Look for two stars near Saturn. Above and slightly left of Saturn is Zubenelschmali. Below and right of Saturn is Zubenelgenubi! Talk about a mouthful! The stars are part of the constellation of Libra, the scales. But the star names mean northern and southern claw, respectively. Last I looked, scales have no claws, but scorpions do! The stars were originally part of Scorpius, the Scorpion, situated just to the east. When Libra was added, the star names stuck. Come to think of it, “zodiac” means “circle of animals” and all of these constellations are animals . . . .except Libra!
For: July 21-27
Jupiter passes behind the Sun this week and Saturn resumes its west to east motion in our sky. Thursday morning, look low in the east-northeast for a very thin crescent Moon sitting to the right of brilliant Venus. Mercury can be seen to the lower left of the pair. If you are up early anyway, keep your eyes open for a few Delta Aquarid meteors. This weekend the Earth runs into the dust trail of Comet Machholz. As the dust slows down in the atmosphere, it shocks the air causing it to glow. And you have a meteor! At its peak, you might see 15-20 Delta Aquarids per hour. Rates pick up during the early morning hours.
For: July 28-August 3
Very high in the east, look for the three bright stars of our summer triangle. Each star belongs to its own constellation: Deneb (Cygnus, the Swan), Vega (Lyra, the Harp), and Altair (Aquila, the Eagle). Cygnus is also known as the “Northern Cross.” See if you can see the cross with Deneb at the top. Running through the triangle is the summer Milky Way. It is very unfortunate that you can’t see our home galaxy from the city limits. Why not take a drive this week maybe a dozen miles outside of town to check out the hazy band of light running from north to south. Got feedback for me regarding the “Prairie Skies” column? Email me at email@example.com.
For: August 4-10
Tonight look for a waxing gibbous Moon just to the left of Saturn. All this week Saturn, Mars, and the star Spica make a straight line in the southwest. Mars will be the brightest of the three. You can watch Mars slowly move eastward towards Saturn. Sunday’s “supermoon” will be the largest of the year, though I’ll admit I detest the name “supermoon.” It is doubtful anyone would even notice a slightly larger Moon if attention weren’t being called to it. The planetarium goes back to our normal Friday and Saturday night public show schedule starting this weekend. If you like black holes or shows involving silly coyotes, check out the schedule online or call 351-2446.
For: August 11-17
The annual Perseid meteor shower peaks Tuesday night into Wednesday morning. The problem will be a bright Moon in our sky, two days past full, which will mask many of the meteors in the sky. If you rise early Sunday morning, look near the horizon just north of east for Venus and Jupiter less than a half degree apart. This is as close as they have been since 2000! To see the third and fourth brightest things in the sky this close is worth an early alarm. At Thursday’s CU Astronomical Society meeting at the planetarium I’ll be sharing images from a trip to the Elgin Observatory and how astronomy can be used to set watches.
For: August 18-24
This coming weekend we’ll watch the planet Mars pass “underneath” Saturn in the southwest. The pair will come to within 3.5 degrees of each other on Sunday evening. Of course, Saturn is much farther away than Mars so they’re not really close, but we see them that way. With Mars being closer to the Sun, it orbits faster. Hence, Saturn gets lapped! If you get up early Saturday morning, you’ll find a lovely crescent Moon just to the right of our two morning planets, Venus and Jupiter. The two were closest this past weekend and will now separate with Jupiter getting higher in the sky. Venus will gradually get nearer to the Sun until it passes behind the Sun in late October.
For: August 25-31
This Friday, a thin crescent Moon can be seen in the southwest. Sunday, the Moon will move to make a nice triangle with Mars and Saturn with Mars sitting below the Moon. Friday is also Neptune’s “opposition,” meaning the farthest planet in the solar system is closest to us. Still, that’s 2,695,791,000 miles distant! Despite its proximity, you’ll still need a good quality telescope to see it. Why not visit the CU Astronomical Society observatory this Saturday for our next free open house. If clouds permit, we’ll be looking at the Moon and Saturn (cuas.org). By 11pm, the summer triangle is high on a north-south line with the Milky Way running right through it from northeast to southwest.
See Dave Leake's "Prairie Skies" column in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette each Monday morning.