Click here for Dave's preview of sky events in 2016.
For: January 11-17
Given we had a New Moon last Saturday, we have another great week ahead looking at the Moon. See if you can find it tonight, though it will be a pretty thin crescent. Look south of west. The monthly meeting for the CU Astronomical Society is this Thursday at the planetarium (7pm). Typically we take the January meeting to look at sky events for the year. My preview of 2016 is now online on the planetarium web site (look for the link at the top of this page). This Saturday Comet Catalina is closest to our Earth this Saturday at 67 million miles – that’s a wide berth! Use binoculars and look for it near the two ends stars of the Big Dipper’s handle.
For: January 18-24
Tomorrow night get your binoculars out and look at the waxing Gibbous Moon. Look on the side not lit by the Sun for the star Aldebaran. Keep watching as, just after 8pm, the Moon will cover the star in an event called an “occultation.” The star will reappear at about 9:15pm. Occultation studies showed us the Moon lacks an atmosphere and also help refine its orbit. The planetarium is open for public shows this weekend with “Winter Prairie Skies,” “Big Bird’s Adventure,” and a remastered show on the astronomy of the Pawnee nation called “Spirits From the Sky, Thunder on the Land.” “Spirits” is a wonderful show with a beautiful soundtrack. See our web site for a full schedule.
For: January 25-31
With the Super Bowl upon us, people are thinking “football.” Before the planetarium put in a digital system, we used to make a football out of the winter stars. You can see it all this week near 9pm. Near straight up is the star Capella – that’s one end of the football. Moving down and to the left you have the stars of the Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux, then Procyon, and then curving more to the south, Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Moving to the right and higher in the sky is the Rigel, the knee of Orion, then Aldebaran, the eye of our celestial bull. And you’re back up to Capella. Does that look like a football?
For: February 1-7
This Friday brings another speaker to the “World of Science” lecture series at the planetarium (7pm). We welcome Dr. Tim Larson to talk about the facts and fiction of earthquakes. Come and learn if something like the movie “San Andreas” could really happen. Admission is a buck at the door. Saturday morning, look for a very thin crescent Moon just above the planet Mercury in the southeast. Sunday morning, Mercury is at its greatest separation from the Sun, rising after 5:30am or about the time morning twilight begins. Venus appears above and to the right of Mercury. This if the first of three morning views of Mercury with the others being in June and in late September.
For: February 8-14
The New Moon occurs tonight meaning you can start looking for a thin Moon in the southwest probably Wednesday evening. Thursday is the next CU Astronomical Society meeting at the planetarium (7pm). Michael Johnson will discuss the club’s social media campaigns. Also look for the Winter Triangle this week. It is nearly due south and halfway up in the sky at sunset. The triangle consists of the bright stars Sirius, Procyon, and the reddish Betelgeuse (the armpit of Orion). Which star appears brightest? The distances to these stars are 8.6, 11.5, and 570 light years. Given the distances, which star do you think is really the brightest? The idea of apparent brightness is key in the Next Generation Science Standards for 5th graders.
For: February 15-21
Tonight, use binoculars to look at the Moon. Continue to watch as the Moon slowly moves from west to east in its orbit, passing in front of the stars of the Hyades star cluster (the face of Taurus, the bull). These are called stellar occultations. The planetarium will have an open house for area teachers this Thursday at the planetarium from 4-6pm. This weekend brings the return of musical shows at the planetarium as we do laser shows after our regular public programs. See our web site for the show line-up and details (but I can tell you “Dark Side of the Moon” plays Friday night at 9:30pm followed by “The Wall” at 10:30!).
For: February 22-28
Watch tonight’s full Moon rise nearly due east as the Sun sets. February’s full Moon has been called the “snow moon” and the “hunger moon.” With heavy snow falling, it is more difficult to hunt, hence the names. An hour after moonrise, the planet Jupiter makes an appearance to the lower left of the Moon. All this occurs just below the backwards question mark shape of Leo, the lion. This weekend is the planetarium’s second (and last) week of laser shows. Consult our show line-up online. There are two shows Friday night and two Saturday. Friday brings the sounds of Led Zeppelin back to the dome! Tickets are $8 per person per show, all sold at the door.
For: February 29 – March 6
Today is February 29 and a leap day. Since the Earth officially takes 365.25 days to orbit the Sun, the 0.25 days add up and we have to add one every four years. Tomorrow morning, a last quarter Moon rises at about 1am, led across the morning sky by the planet Mars, which appears just above and right of the Moon. We are leading up to a close approach of Mars in late May but, starting in March, those with telescopes may start to see some surface features. This Friday’s “World of Science” talk (7pm) at the planetarium features Dr. Rashid Bashir and a discussion on "Interfacing Engineering, Biology & Medicine at the Micro and Nanoscale.”
See Dave Leake's "Prairie Skies" column in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette each Monday morning.