For: November 23-29
Wednesday’s full Moon is the Frost of Beaver Moon. Early colonists would set traps this time of year to have a good supply of pelts for the winter. The rising Moon will be just above and to the right of the sideways “V”-shaped constellation of Taurus the Bull. The bright eye of the bull is Aldebaran. The name means “the follower” since the star follows the Pleiades star cluster across the sky. If you’re exhausted from a full day of shopping, join me Friday night for planetarium shows, including the seasonal premier of “Season of Light,” our holiday special, at 8pm. We will illustrate how many of our holiday traditions revolve around the winter solstice and the “return of the Sun.”
For: November 30 – December 6
Watch the rising of Orion due east near 7pm this week. When can you first see the famous belt stars, appearing as a vertical line pointing down towards the horizon? Though it dates back to 1997, I still hear references to “Men in Black” when Orion’s belt stars come up in conversation! As the Moon continues eastward in its orbit, it passes Jupiter on Friday morning and is just above Mars Saturday morning. This Friday (7pm) the planetarium welcomes astronomer Jim Kaler back to the dome for a talk on dwarf planets. You may have heard we flew by a couple of them earlier this year. Admission is only a buck at the door.
For: December 7-13
If you read this in the morning, there is a challenging event occurring today, but you’ll need binoculars. At about 11:15am today, the Moon will pass in front of the planet Venus in the daytime. If sky conditions are favorable look for the Moon about four fists west of the Sun in the southwest. Venus will disappear just after 11:15 and reappear from the night side of the Moon just after 12:30pm. This weekend marks the maximum of the Geminid Meteor Shower. Since the Moon is new on Friday we’ll have an optimum sky for meteor watching. Sunday and Monday night may be best. You may see a couple of “shooting stars”per minute after 11pm. For more meteor info, click here!
For: December 14-20
Want to find a comet? Comet Catalina was discovered on Halloween of 2013 but was closest to the Sun about a month ago. As the comet now heads away from our Sun it comes closer to our Earth, coming to within 67 million miles in mid-January. Comet brightness can be unpredictable, but you should be able to see Catalina with binoculars. Look about 90 minutes before sunrise just to the right of due east. Venus will be the bright object south of east and, more due east and higher in the sky, is the star Arcturus. Sweep with binoculars between these two objects for a fuzzy dot with a tail. On New Year’s morning the comet should be next to Arcturus. For a chart and empheris, go here.
For: December 21-27
Today is the winter solstice! In the northern hemisphere, the Sun is at its lowest at local noon giving us our longest shadows. If you want to measure your shadow length and you know your height, you can do a little math and the Sun should be about 26.5 degrees high at noon. This is 23.5 degrees lower than it was on the first day of autumn. This all results from the Earth’s 23.5 degree axial tilt. This is when sunlight is the least concentrated on the ground and things can’t warm up as much as we’d like. We’ll also have only nine hours (and 20 minutes) of daylight. Happy holidays from all of us at the Staerkel Planetarium!
For: December 28-January 3
Tonight Mercury is at its farthest separation from the Sun. Look for it in the southwest as the evening twilight is fading. It will appear as a star. As the year ends, we have Jupiter rising in the east at 11pm. Late Wednesday night, watch a waning gibbous Moon rise just before Jupiter. Mars follows after 1am and, lastly, Venus makes an appearance at 4:30am. If you’re up this early anyway, look higher in the east for the orange star Arcturus. If brightness estimates hold, binoculars should show Comet Catalina Thursday near the star Thursday morning. The tail should be pointed away from where the Sun would rise. Happy New Year, everyone!
See Dave Leake's "Prairie Skies" column in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette each Monday morning.