Click here for Dave Leake's preview of sky events for 2015!
For: November 17-23
High in the south-southeast around 7 p.m. you’ll find the Great Square of Pegasus. Instead of looking for an upside-down flying horse (with no rear end) up there, look for the diamond-shaped figure. If you can trace diagonally across the square from the lower right star to the upper left, and then continue that line outward, you’ll come close to the Andromeda Galaxy. Andromeda is the closest big galaxy to us, boasting over a trillion stars over two million light years away. Want to impress a date? Show them the Andromeda Galaxy in binoculars! Or you can watch meteors as the Leonid meteor shower continues this week during the hours before dawn.
For: November 24-30
The star Fomalhaut twinkles by itself nearly due south this week at 6:30 p.m. Fomalhaut has an orbiting planet that was the first to be imaged by the Hubble Telescope. Look for a crescent Moon in the southwest tonight. Tomorrow night, the Moon will be to the right of the planet Mars. If you exhaust yourself shopping this Friday, relax in a comfortable chair beneath the stars at the planetarium. We traditionally open our holiday special, “Season of Light” at 8pm both Friday and Saturday night. A description appears on our web site. Saturday is also the last open house of the year at the CU Astronomical Society Observatory (cuas.org). Lets hope for clear weather!
For: December 1-7
Community icon Dr. Jim Kaler returns to the planetarium Friday (7pm) for his annual contribution to our “World of Science” lecture series. His topic will be nature’s leftovers – the asteroids. Patrons attending the talk will be treated to a special surprise as we will unveil a historical piece of memorabilia from the Jim Kaler family in our lobby after the talk. If you’re out skywatching just after sunset, keep your eyes glued to the west-southwestern horizon. Venus passed behind the Sun last month and now creeps into our evening sky. When will we first see this brilliant planet in our sky? You tell me! Venus will rise higher each evening until it meets Mars next February.
For: December 8-14
Jupiter rises at 9:30 p.m. all this week just a little north of east. This rise gets earlier until Jupiter appears at 8 p.m. by the end of the month. As the Earth approaches this world, Jupiter will gradually get brighter. Tomorrow night, Jupiter will cease its west to east motion and then start heading backwards towards the west. This “retrograde motion” is a result of the Earth catching and passing Jupiter in its faster orbit. Thursday and Friday, a gibbous Moon passes beneath Jupiter. Late Sunday and Monday evenings bring us the Geminid Meteor Shower. Meteor showers usually occur when the Earth runs into the trail of a comet, but the Geminids seem to be related to a three-mile-wide asteroid called Phaethon.
For: December 15-21
This weekend is your last chance to see “Santa’s Secret Star” and “Season of Light” at the planetarium as we’ll close for college’s winter break. Sunday brings the winter solstice at 5:03 p.m. Yup, it officially winter! The Sun will be the lowest in our sky at noon and only spend about nine hours above the horizon. The good news is, in the upcoming weeks, the noon Sun will begin to creep higher. This motion isn’t obvious to the casual observer, which is where the name “solstice” comes from. It means “sun still.” Sunday is also the date for the New Moon, so begin looking for a crescent Moon in the evening sky next week.
For: December 22-28
Tomorrow evening, look roughly thirty minutes after sunset for a very thin crescent Moon low in the southwest. Then carefully look below the Moon, towards the horizon, for the planet Venus. Venus will gradually get higher in our sky if you don’t see it tomorrow night. It is in the process of coming around from behind the Sun so we’ll have it in our evening sky for the next seven months. On Wednesday evening, the Moon is higher and to the right of Mars. We’ll have first quarter Moon in Pisces by week’s end. Whatever you celebrate this time of the year, the staff of the Staerkel Planetarium wishes you and yours a very happy holiday!
For: December 29 – January 4
I hope Santa was good to you! If, by chance, you are the proud owner a new telescope or binoculars, take them outside and look for Orion, our mighty hunter. The three belt stars making a diagonal line are due south, about halfway up in our sky, at 10 p.m. this week. Look beneath the middle star for the Orion Nebula. You can spy the nebula with just your eyes if the sky is dark enough. This star forming region is over 1300 light years away. The cloud is a favorite target for the Hubble Space Telescope. Check out hubblesite.org for amazing images. The star to the lower left of Orion is Sirius, the brightest star in our night sky.
See Dave Leake's "Prairie Skies" column in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette each Monday morning.