For: November 18-24
Comet ISON continues to head sunward in our morning sky making its closest approach to our nearest star next week. It is anyone’s guess how bright the comet will get but recent observations have shown the comet to not be as bright as expected. Friday the comet moves from Virgo and into Libra, appearing to the right of the planet Mercury in the east-southeast. Look an hour before sunrise. Sunday morning the comet should be below and to the right of both Saturn and Mercury. Will you be able to see it in binoculars? We’ll all find out together! It will be very interesting to see if the comet survives its trip around the Sun next week.
For: November 25 – December 1
Thanksgiving day is also the date when Comet ISON is closest to the Sun. Will the three mile wide ice ball survive the warming rays of our star? Comets are notoriously tough to predict so it’s anyone’s guess. I know I’ll be out looking early next week in the hope we will get to see something. Black Friday brings the traditional opening of our fulldome holiday special “Season of Light” at the planetarium. That morning, a lovely Crescent Moon is just above the star Spics in the southeast. The Moon gets closer to the eastern horizon, appearing below Saturn and above Mercury on Sunday morning. Look low in the southeast only an hour before the Sun rises.
For: December 2-8
In the “perfect timing” department, the planetarium welcomes Dr. James Kaler to the dome for December’s “World of Science” talk Friday night at 7pm. His presentation is entitled “From Out of Nowhere . . . Comets!” If Comet ISON survives the trip around the Sun (and it might not), we may see something this week. Look with binoculars in the east-southeast only 30 minutes before sunrise. Look close to the horizon. The comet will be higher in the sky each morning. Keep in mind that ISON may not have survived its trip around the Sun so it is quite possible we’ll see nothing. But that’s part of the fun of backyard skywatching. The universe can be unpredictable!
Comet ISON update . . . .the comet gave us a few thrills before it became just a dust cloud. The comet dimmed hours before it's predicted closest approach to the Sun causing some to believe the comet had disintegrated. But soon reports came up that something had emerged from the near the Sun and it was pretty bright! This soon faded away. So Comet ISON is now just a part of history! For more information, see spaceweather.com.
For: December 9-15
The action in the sky occurs this weekend and we have our last planetarium shows before the holiday break. It will be your last chance to see “Santa’s Secret Star” and “Season of Light” before the planetarium temporarily shuts down. In the sky, the Geminid Meteor Shower peaks this weekend. The Geminids are a potent and reliable shower but less well known due to December’s chill. Meteors may appear at any spot in the sky but will all seem to radiate from a spot north of Orion. You’ll still see a few Geminids despite the Moon brightening the sky. The nearly full Moon is near the Pleiades star cluster on Saturday evening and near the red star Aldebaran Sunday.
For: December 16-22
Look for the full Moon to rise in the northeast, opposite the Sun, on Tuesday evening. The next night, you’ll see it rise a bit later and to the right of Jupiter. This Saturday, the Winter Solstice occurs at 11:11 a.m. At this time, the Sun is above the Tropic of Capricorn and lowest in our sky. People did many things to try and coax the Sun to not go any lower, such as bringing pine trees into their homes and decorating them with lights and trinkets. Some of us still do that today! The good news is that, in the following weeks, the noon Sun is higher in our sky and the days will begin to lengthen!
For: December 23-29
Look for Venus this week in the southwest as the brightest “star” in the sky. If you have binoculars, get them out and train them on Venus. Venus is heading sunward and will pass between the Sun and the Earth on January 11. A telescope will show Venus as a thin crescent, only about 10% lit. Can you see the crescent shape? Look as soon as you can after sunset and don’t even wait for the sky to become dark. For those who go to bed early and rise early, look for the crescent Moon late in the week. On Saturday morning, the Moon is above and to the right of Saturn.
For: December 30 – January 5
Winter nights are long and chilly which can cause depression, but during no other season will you find this many bright stars at night. If you’re like me, they warm the soul. After the Big Dipper, the next most recognizable constellation is Orion, the Hunter, marked by his three equally bright belt stars. Look for the belt high in the southeast after sunset this week. Surrounding the belt is a bright rectangle of stars marking Orion’s shoulders and knees. Compare the star at the upper left, Betelgeuse, to the star at the lower right, Rigel. Can you see any color contrast? Star colors are due to differences in temperature with the blue star being much hotter than the red star.
See Dave Leake's "Prairie Skies" column in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette each Monday evening.