Click here for Dave's preview of sky events in 2017.
For: February 20-26
Kids out of school today? Bring them to the planetarium for two matinees! See “From Earth to the Universe” at either 10am or 2pm. Tuesday from 4-6pm the planetarium hosts a free open house for teachers. Heading into the weekend, Sunday evening Mars (which is to the upper left of Venus in the west) passes only 0.6 degrees above Uranus. You’ll need a small telescope to bring in Uranus, though. There’s also an annular eclipse Sunday but you must be in the Moon’s shadow to see it and that shadow line runs across the south Atlantic Ocean from southern South America to south-central Africa. Don’t fret as a better eclipse is coming in August!
For: February 27 – March 5
Tomorrow night look for a very thin crescent Moon to the lower left of Venus in the west, just after sunset. Maybe use binoculars if you own a pair. Friday night is the next “World of Science” talk at the planetarium (7pm). David Kristovich (Illinois State Water Survey) will discuss winter storms in the Midwest. Admission is $2 at the door. Saturday night, weather permitting, is the first open house of the year at the CUAS Observatory (cuas.org) beginning at about 7pm. The planetarium now has an eclipse web site which details what will happen this coming August and how you can see it! Click on the image of the total solar eclipse for more information.
For: March 6-12
This week, observers with telescopes and binoculars should keep an eye on Venus in the west-northwest as it descends towards the Sun. Venus will pass between the Sun and Earth in two weeks and, in doing so will become a very thin crescent in our sky. It will be a rapid descent! Keep an eye on its altitude each clear night. By this weekend, we’ll only see 7% of the face lit by the Sun. Can you see the crescent shape? At Thursday evening’s CU Astronomical Society meeting, Jim Kloeppel will give us a tour of lunar atlases; the public invited (7pm, planetarium). Sunday’s full Moon is the “Worm Moon” or the “Sap Moon.”
For: March 13-19
Watch the Moon rise just above Jupiter tonight in the southeast. By the end of the week, begin looking for the planet Mercury in the west just after sunset. Use the much brighter Venus as your guide. Venus is sinking towards the Sun and Mercury is gaining separation from the Sun. They will seem to pass each other over the weekend, though, in reality, Mercury is on the other side of the Sun and Venus is on our side. Mercury will be left of Venus but look soon after sunset. If the weather is cloudy you can always see the pair on the planetarium dome as “Spring Prairie Skies” starts this Friday night at 7pm.
For: March 20-26
Happy spring everyone! The vernal equinox is today with the Sun being directly over the Earth’s equator at 5:29am this morning. Though there are no planetarium shows this weekend, there is an interesting event you can see if you put in the effort. Venus passes between the Earth and Sun on Saturday but, due to its orbit, it passes north of the Sun. Technically you are able to see Venus in both the evening and morning sky on the same day. Start Wednesday evening when Venus sets 30 minutes after sunset but then rises Thursday morning 33 minutes before sunrise! Venus has been called both the morning “star” and evening “star” and you can see both in less than 24 hours!
For: March 27 – April 2
Tomorrow’s New Moon means that we’ll see a thin crescent in the sky again. Look due west on Wednesday night and try to spy the Moon just above and left of Mercury. Mercury is only visible a few times each year when it is separated from the glare of the Sun, and not all those times are favorable. This week and next is the best time for all of 2017 to see it in the evening sky. By Friday it sets after the end of evening twilight. You’ll still need a low western horizon. Friday. Andrew Pritchard gives a talk on local tornadoes in our dome on Friday at 7pm and there’s a CU Astro Society open house Saturday night, weather permitting (cuas.org).
For: April 3-9
I’m excited about this Friday’s “World of Science” talk at the planetarium (7pm). UIUC astronomy professor Joaquin Vieira will examine “How the Universe Began.” Admission is $2 at the door. Also look in the southeast at sunset at the end of the week as Jupiter reaches “opposition” on April 2. At opposition, Jupiter is closest to our Earth (322 million miles) and thus appears large and bright. Jupiter will be a wonderful spring target for backyard telescopes. Look south of east for its rising and then wait about 40 minutes for the star Spica to rise just below it. Spica is a bluish star and number sixteen on the list of bright stars.
See Dave Leake's "Prairie Skies" column in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette each Monday morning.