Read Dave Leake's preview of sky events for 2014
For: February 10-16
In tonight’s sky, look for a waxing gibbous Moon just to the right of Jupiter. Thursday brings the monthly CU Astronomical Society meeting at the planetarium (7 p.m.) where Dave Thompson will talk about astronomy phone apps. The public is invited. Friday is Valentine’s Day and also the night of the full Moon. February’s full Moon has been called the “Snow Moon.” Hmmm, I wonder why? The star to the left of the Moon is the star Regulus, in Leo. The planetarium celebrates the day by welcoming the “Flower Jax” for a live concert in the dome under the stars. If you are a fan of guitar and mandolin, this night is for you! Tickets are $5 at the door.
For: February 17-23
When you awaken Wednesday morning, look in the southwest for the waning gibbous Moon, situated just to the right of the star Spica. Just above and to the left of the pair is the red planet Mars. Mars rises just after 10 p.m. all this week, slowly but surely brightening as the Mars/Earth distance decreases. If you lived on Mars, north of the equator, you’d be experiencing Martian summer about now. Though the year is roughly twice as long as that of the Earth, Mars has a similar axial tilt, meaning Mars has similar seasons to our Earth, though it is much colder! Those with telescopes should start looking for a few surfaces features on Mars.
For: February 24 – March 2
Just after 8 p.m. this week, look low in the south for Sirius, the brightest star in our night sky. Sirius is the heart of one of Orion’s hunting dogs, Canis Major. If the atmosphere is unsteady, watch the star twinkle and appear to change colors. If you rise before the Sun this week and you have an unobstructed horizon, it is possible to see Venus very near a thin crescent Moon. Look low on the horizon in the southeast. Venus is about as bright as it gets this week. Saturday evening, the planetarium welcomes “The Flower Jax” for the second of two live concerts in the dome. More information appears on the planetarium web site.
For: March 3-9
The action happens this weekend both in the dome and in the sky. Friday night, the planetarium welcomes Andrew Pritchard from the SkyDrama.net to the dome for our next “World of Science” talk. Mr. Prichard will reveal “Confessions of a Storm Chaser” at 7 p.m. On Saturday night, the CU Astronomical Society holds it’s first observatory open house of the year (weather permitting), starting at 7 p.m. The observatory site is located between Champaign and Sadorus. Directions can be found at cuas.org. We hope to get some good looks at the planet Jupiter. And, before you go to bed that night, be sure to set your clocks forward an hour, too! Daylight saving time is upon us!
For: March 10-16
If you have some binoculars, you have a chance to see something unusual tonight. The Moon will pass in front of the star Lambda Geminorum. The dark side of the Moon should make the star blink out just before 10 p.m. Such an event is called an “occultation,” but it has nothing to do with the occult. Watching an occultation was our first clue that the Moon did not have an atmosphere. Timing an occultation allowed us to precisely determine the Moon’s orbit. The bright object above the Moon is Jupiter. The CU Astronomical Society meets this Thursday (7 p.m.) at the planetarium and Engineering Open House is this weekend at the university.
For: March 17-23
Wednesday night a waning gibbous Moon makes a triangle with the star Spica and the planet Mars. The Earth/Mars distance is decreasing, meaning Mars appears brighter and quite large through a telescope. The two will be closest next month. Compare the reddish hue of Mars to the blue of Spica. Mars is moving towards the west as it is lapped by the Earth. The Moon is farther east each evening and appears to the left of Saturn on Friday morning. Roughly noon Thursday brings us the vernal equinox when the Sun is above the Earth’s equator and we begin spring. Finally! That also means Spring Prairie Skies opens at the planetarium Friday night at 7 p.m.
For: March 24-30
Just as the sun is setting this week, look in the south roughly half way up in the sky for three bright stars. The three make up the winter triangle, an asterism that you can see from even light-polluted locations. The three stars are (starting at upper left), Procyon, then west to Betelgeuse, then down to Sirius. The first letters spell “PBS,” which is where you can find excellent programming about the sky! Sirius and Procyon are the brightest in Orion’s two hunting dogs, Canis Major and Minor, and Betelgeuse marks Orion’s armpit. For the early risers, check out the thin crescent Moon very near Venus Thursday morning. Look just south of east.
For: March 31-April 6
Since it is spring, it’s time to look for some spring constellations! Look southeast, near 8 p.m., a bit more than halfway up in the sky for the bright star Regulus, sitting at the base of what appears to be a backwards question mark. The figure is the face and mane of Leo, the Lion. Regulus is the 21st brightest star in the sky, 150 times brighter than our Sun. This Friday is the planetarium’s last “World of Science” talk when we welcome Parkland’s own Toni Burkhalter who will explore health misconceptions. The UI Observatory is open to the public Friday night and the CUAS Observatory (cuas.org) is open Saturday night, weather permitting.
See Dave Leake's "Prairie Skies" column in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette each Monday evening.