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Galaxy Club

Tonight's Sky

comet photo by Read Dave Leake's sky events for 2014


For: September 15-21

Friday night, “Fall Prairie Skies” opens at the Staerkel Planetarium at 7 p.m. In the age of push-button planetarium shows, we pride ourselves on our live programming. Come by for an indoor sky tour! Then take your new-found knowledge out with the CU Astronomical Society as they take telescopes to the Middle Fork Forest Preserve (northeast of Rantoul) Saturday night (weather permitting). There will be a program at the activity center at 8pm with observing to follow. These are some of the darkest skies in the county! I always look forward to peering into the star clouds of the Milky Way as they cross from north to south. I hope you’ll join us!

For: September 22-28

We have the autumnal equinox tonight at 9:29 p.m. as the Sun sits high above the Earth’s equator. There are several observing opportunities this week. Thursday, telescopes will be set-up at Meadowbrook Park for “Take a Child Outside” week. Saturday morning, we hope to get some good views of the Sun with special filters as the CU Astro Society partakes in Market at the Square in Urbana. Saturday night is another free open house at the CUAS Observatory between Champaign and Sadorus. We hope to be looking at Mars and Saturn. A crescent Moon will be to the lower right of Saturn on this evening. All events are weather permitting. See for details.

For: September 29-October 5

Tonight, look to the southwest for the Moon just above the planet Mars. Look for a reddish tint to the planet, then compare Mars to the bright star just below it, as it is red, too! Antares is the heart of our celestial scorpion, a red supergiant star, much larger than our Sun. It is estimated to be six Earth/Sun distances in diameter!! The name “Antares” means “the rival of Mars” or simply “not Mars!” I guess others got the two confused, too! Compare the colors on your own. Friday night is the first of six “World of Science” talks at the planetarium. We welcome Dr. Nathan Schroeder to the dome to talk about nematodes. Admission is just a buck.

For: October 6-12

The big event this week is the first of two eclipses that we can see. On Wednesday morning, before sunrise, the Moon will pass into the Earth’s shadow producing a lunar eclipse. There will be a light shading on the Moon as early at 3:45 a.m. but the main action starts at 4:15 a.m. when the Moon enters the darker section of the shadow. The Moon will be completely in the Earth’s shadow at 5:25 a.m. What color will the Moon appear? Will it be completely dark? The Moon will begin to come out of the shadow at 6:24 a.m. and the Sun will rise before the event is completely over. Set the alarm early this morning and check it out! Lunar eclipses are very safe to watch.

For: October 13-19

Keep your eyes on the news late in the week as Comet Siding Spring will have a close encounter with Mars. The comet will miss the surface of Mars by 82,000 miles, which is extremely close!! In our sky, Mars is low in the southwest. Given Mars is pretty far away, the comet will be faint but still visible in larger telescopes. It will appear to pass from south to north near Mars. Though the comet won’t impact Mars, we should receive some awesome images of the comet from our rovers and orbiting satellites at Mars. The comet, an ice ball about 0.4 miles across, was discovered by Robert McNaught in January of last year from Siding Spring Observatory.

For: October 20-26

If weather permits, we’ll experience a partial solar eclipse Thursday afternoon. This isn’t a total eclipse with about 40% of the Sun being blocked by the Moon. The event begins just after 4:30 p.m. with maximum eclipse occurring an hour later. Solar eclipses can be very dangerous! Never, never look directly at the Sun! Sunglasses provide no protection nor to solar filters that thread into telescope eyepieces!! The CU Astronomical Society has been given permission to set-up telescopes in Sunset Park (north of Bradley, bordering Staley Road) beginning at 4 p.m. They will employ safe methods to watch the eclipse and are happy to share views with you! The park provides a low western horizon. The sun will set before the eclipse concludes.

For: October 27-November 2

Tonight, look for a waxing crescent Moon in the southwest just to the right of the planet Mars. Mars has left our celestial scorpion as it heads eastward, heading for the teapot-shaped constellation of Sagittarius. Mars sets three hours after the Sun. Is it time for Halloween already? That means we are roughly halfway from the autumn equinox to the winter solstice. It also means “Santa’s Secret Star” opens at the planetarium this Saturday (7 p.m.). Saturday evening brings another free open house at the CUAS Observatory, southwest of town. If clouds leave us alone, we hope to be able to check out the fall sky from our rural dark site ( Join us!

See Dave Leake's "Prairie Skies" column in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette each Monday morning.