Read Dave Leake's preview of sky events for 2014
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.
For: April 7-13
Tuesday bring us the “opposition” of Mars, an event that occurs once every 26 months. As seen from the Earth, Mars is opposite the Sun. This means the planet will rise as the Sun sets and be visible all night. It also means Mars is pretty close to us and anything close appears large through a telescope and bright to our eyes. Look for Mars in the southeast. Given the elliptical orbit of Mars, some oppositions are closer than others. In 2003, Mars was 34.6 million miles from us. This time around, Mars will be over 57 million miles away. We will have to wait until the summer of 2018 to see Mars as close as it was back in 2003!
For: April 14-20
Tuesday morning, after you finish your taxes, check out the first total lunar eclipse seen from the United States since the winter of 2011. The bad news is that the eclipse begins just before 1 a.m. Tuesday morning. The Moon shines with reflected sunlight but the Moon is also a poor reflector, so the lunar eclipse safe to view. The Moon will be completely within the Earth’s shadow just after 2 a.m. Mid-eclipse occurs at 2:46 a.m. We’ll see if the Moon will turn reddish on us! The Moon will start to come out of the Earth’s shadow at 3:25 a.m. and we’ll have a full Moon again by 4:39 a.m. If the skies are clear, this will be worth setting the alarm!
For: April 21-27
Tuesday morning brings us the annual Lyrid Meteor Shower, when the Earth passes through the dust trail of Comet Thatcher. Unfortunately, the third quarter Moon will brighten the morning sky, erasing the fainter meteors from our view. You still might see a few “shooting stars” if you are patient. The Moon moves farther eastward each morning until it sits just above the planet Venus in the east-southeast Friday morning. If the skies are clear, CU Astro Society telescopes will visit the Middle Fork Forest Preserve Saturday evening. The Middle Fork, northeast of Rantoul, sports some of the darkest skies in the county! Join us for this free event!
For: April 28-May 4
This Saturday brings another open house at the CUAS Observatory, located between Champaign and Sadorus (cuas.org). If the weather is clear, we’ll be looking at Jupiter in the west, sitting pretty just above a beautiful crescent Moon. Mars will be nearly due south, just above and to the right of the star Spica. Saturn will be coming up at about 9:30 p,m. in the southeast, though the rings won’t impress until the planet gets higher in the sky. The Big Dipper will be not quite overhead, but pretty high in the north and, below it, heading to the south, is the backwards question mark shape of Leo, our celestial lion. The star Regulus, the 21st brightest star in our sky and the heart of our lion.
See Dave Leake's "Prairie Skies" column in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette each Monday evening.