Click here for Dave's preview of sky events in 2017.
For: March 20-26
Happy spring everyone! The vernal equinox is today with the Sun being directly over the Earth’s equator at 5:29am this morning. Though there are no planetarium shows this weekend, there is an interesting event you can see if you put in the effort. Venus passes between the Earth and Sun on Saturday but, due to its orbit, it passes north of the Sun. Technically you are able to see Venus in both the evening and morning sky on the same day. Start Wednesday evening when Venus sets 30 minutes after sunset but then rises Thursday morning 33 minutes before sunrise! Venus has been called both the morning “star” and evening “star” and you can see both in less than 24 hours!
For: March 27 – April 2
Tomorrow’s New Moon means that we’ll see a thin crescent in the sky again. Look due west on Wednesday night and try to spy the Moon just above and left of Mercury. Mercury is only visible a few times each year when it is separated from the glare of the Sun, and not all those times are favorable. This week and next is the best time for all of 2017 to see it in the evening sky. By Friday it sets after the end of evening twilight. You’ll still need a low western horizon. Friday. Andrew Pritchard gives a talk on local tornadoes in our dome on Friday at 7pm and there’s a CU Astro Society open house Saturday night, weather permitting (cuas.org).
For: April 3-9
I’m excited about this Friday’s “World of Science” talk at the planetarium (7pm). UIUC astronomy professor Joaquin Vieira will examine “How the Universe Began.” Admission is $2 at the door. Also look in the southeast at sunset at the end of the week as Jupiter reaches “opposition” on April 2. At opposition, Jupiter is closest to our Earth (322 million miles) and thus appears large and bright. Jupiter will be a wonderful spring target for backyard telescopes. Look south of east for its rising and then wait about 40 minutes for the star Spica to rise just below it. Spica is a bluish star and number sixteen on the list of bright stars.
For: April 10-16
Tonight, look eastward at sunset for the Moon as it rises just left of the planet Jupiter. Full Moon occurs tomorrow night. April’s Full Moon is the “Pink Moon,” named for the early spring flowers. Starting tonight, use binoculars to look just south of the Little Dipper’s bowl in the north. Comet Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak (or T-G-K) is heading northeast and could brighten this month. Comets are very unpredictable and this one is has been known to undergo outbursts. For a finder chart, click here. At Thursday night CU Astronomical Society meeting, Mike Lockwood will discuss thermal issues in telescopes. This weekend, the planetarium will host a live concert entitled “Shadows From the Sun.”
For: April 17-23
All week, look low in the west-northwestern sky just after sunset for the planet Mars just left of the Pleiades star cluster. Binoculars will help. Also this week, near 9pm, look due south over halfway up in the sky for a star group resembling a backwards question mark. This is the face of Leo, the Lion. The “point” of the question mark is the star Regulus, the 21st brightest star in the sky. Saturday morning brings the maximum of the Lyrid Meteor Shower. A thin waning crescent Moon will give us a dark sky before dawn. Early risers might see anywhere from 12 to 20 meteors per hours under good conditions. Saturday is Earth Day! Check out activities on earthday.org.
For: April 24-30
Wednesday is new Moon, meaning the following days will bring a lovely crescent Moon in the western sky. Friday night the Moon will appear near the star Aldebaran in the west-northwest. Comet T-G-K passes the head of Draco the Dragon early this week. This week is also Dark Sky Week!. This doesn’t mean you should shut lights off, but be aware of where your lights are shining. Lighting up the sky is a waste of energy. If you shield your lights (preventing light from shining upwards) you can use a lower wattage bulb in your light fixture and get the same illumination on the ground – now you’re saving money! Critically examine your exterior lighting this week!
See Dave Leake's "Prairie Skies" column in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette each Monday morning.