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Galaxy Club

Tonight's Sky

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Click here for Dave's preview of sky events in 2018

For: December 18-24

Today marks the “New Moon” when you won’t find the Moon in sky. But that just means we’ll have a lovely crescent Moon in the sky the rest of this week. The thing is, the Moon won’t pass any bright planets as Saturn passes behind the Sun Thursday. The planet action is in the morning sky. This week Jupiter is just above a wide double star called “Zubenelgenubi” in Libra. Look for Jupiter to rise just before 4am in the southeast. Mars will be above and just right of Jupiter. This pair of planets will get closer together next month. Saturday morning, Mercury rises in the south east to the left of the star Antares. Start looking after 6am.

For: December 25-31

Tonight a first quarter Moon brightens our holiday sky in the star-poor region of Pisces. Look above the Moon for the Great Square of Pegasus. The Moon will continue its eastward trek each night until, on Saturday evening, you can watch a waxing gibbous Moon pass in front of (occult) the eye of the Taurus, the Bull. Start looking for the star Aldebaran off the dark limb of the Moon around 5pm. The star will reappear at about 6:10pm. These “occultations” were early evidence that the Moon did not possess an atmosphere since the star will just blink out. Use binoculars or a small telescope and see if you can see the star disappear.

For: January 1-7

Happy New Year, everyone! Welcome to another year of great stargazing. I again wrote an article detailing all the sky events for the year. You can find the document on our planetarium web site under “Tonight’s Sky.” Highlighted will be a total lunar eclipse later this month and a close view of Mars this summer. If you like to get out of bed early, start early this week looking for Mars and Jupiter in the southeast. The two will seem to get closer until, this coming Sunday morning, the two planets will be only 0.3 degrees apart! It is worth getting up a little early (5:30am) for one of the best planetary conjunctions of the year.

For: January 8-14

If you caught the close approach of Mars and Jupiter yesterday, look Thursday morning for the same arrangement. Jupiter and Mars will have separated by then, but a waning crescent Moon joins them, making a nice triangle. Saturday morning, Mercury zips by Saturn, passing it by only 0.7 degrees, though this pair is much lower than Jupiter and Mars. Saturn rises about an hour and 20 minutes before the Sun and after the start of twilight. Did Santa bring you some binoculars? If so, try finding the Andromeda Galaxy by tracing a diagonal line across the square of Pegasus from southwest to the northeast and extending this line northeastward. You’ll have to look close to straight up, though!

For: January 15-21

Tuesday’s New Moon means we’ll see a crescent Moon in the evening sky probably Thursday evening. The Staerkel Planetarium opens its doors to the public this coming weekend. Friday at 7pm we open “Winter Prairie Skies,” our live tour of the current constellations and planets. Saturday at 7pm is “In My Backyard” for the kids. At 8pm both nights we bring back a fantastic show focusing on the sky legends of the Pawnee nation called “Spirits From the Sky, Thunder on the Land.” Did you get a telescope for Christmas? If so, remember to start skywatching with the largest focal length eyepiece (lower magnification). You can also add weight to your tripod to make it steadier.

For: January 22-28

The third brightest object in the sky, besides the Sun and Moon, is the planet Venus. Venus spent most of last year in the morning sky. It just passed behind the Sun, moving into the evening sky. This week, on paper, Venus sets at 5:30pm, only a half hour after the Sun. This set time will increase little by little into the summer months. Look low in the sky just a bit to the left of due west. On what date can you first spy Venus? In the east-southeast, look this week near 6pm for the rising of Sirius, the brightest nighttime star. As the starlight fights through Earth’s atmosphere it is bent and the star will appear to twinkle and change colors.

For: January 29 – February 4

Set the alarm this Wednesday morning to see part of a total lunar eclipse. Lunar eclipses occur when the Full Moon passes into the Earth’s shadow. With the Earth blocking the sunlight it appears something is taking a bite out of the Moon. This event begins at 5:48am and the Moon is completely in the Earth’s shadow at 6:52am. Twilight will already be in full force by this time and the Moon will set before the eclipse is over. Be sure to have a good view of the northwestern horizon. This full Moon also ends up being a “Supermoon” and a Blue Moon! Do you know what this means? Yeah, absolutely nothing.

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