Click here for Dave Leake's preview of sky events for 2015!
For: July 13-19
Pluto-palooza continues this week as the New Horizons spacecraft flies within 8000 miles of Pluto’s surface Tuesday morning. After snapping photos like crazy, the craft will turn its antenna towards Earth and “phone home.” Given light travel time to Pluto, the signal won’t arrive until roughly 8pm Tuesday night. The planetarium is planning a “Pluto Party” Tuesday night (6-8:30pm) that is free to the public. We will put the Pluto press conference on the dome and watch live as we receive the signal from the spacecraft. Plus we’ll have a few displays and activities in the lobby. The high-res images won’t arrive until later in the week. We will have them in our Friday night programs. Look for the Moon very near Venus Saturday night.
For: July 20-26
Happy “Space Exploration Day!” Today is the 46th anniversary of the first Moon landing and also the 39th anniversary of the first soft landing on Mars. Watch the Moon stray farther east each night ahead of Friday’s first quarter Moon. That means the CU Astronomical Society will have another observatory open house Saturday. The Moon will be just to the right of Saturn on Saturday, so we won’t have to move the telescope very far. We’ve had horrible luck with open houses this year so far, let’s hope for good weather for this one (call 351-2567 for updates). We might also look for yet another dwarf planet as Ceres reaches opposition Sunday evening. For a chart, see https://in-the-sky.org/findercharts.php?objs=11&duration=5.
For: July 27 – August 2
You might see a few meteors in the sky this week as our Earth passes through the trail of Comet Machholz resulting in the Delta Aquarid meteor shower. The Moon won’t be in a favorable spot, but your best bet may be to check out the sky before dawn Wednesday through Friday morning. There is no definite peak to this shower but you may see 15-20 meteors per hour in a dark sky. The Moon will be full on Friday, the second Full Moon of July, hence a “blue Moon.” Though the definition has changed a bit and the Moon isn’t blue in color, it’s the second Full Moon in a calendar month. The last blue Moon month was August, 2012.
For: August 3-9
Look tonight just after sunset, a little north of west, for Venus. Can you still see it? Venus will pass between the Sun and the Earth on the 15th of this month so it will soon be impossible to see. If you can find it, see if you can see the long, thin crescent shape in binoculars. You’ll need an unobstructed horizon. This Friday, in the same part of the sky, Jupiter, Mercury, and the star Regulus will almost appear to merge. They’ll appear just above Venus. Join the CU Astronomical Society this Saturday night at the Middle Fork Forest Preserve for some dark sky viewing with telescopes. A program starts in the activity center at 8pm (weather permitting).
For: August 10-16
This week the Earth passes through the trail of Comet Swift-Tuttle. The comet’s last trip around the Sun occurred in 1992, but we hit the dust trail every year about this time. As the pea-sized dust particles slow down roughly 60 miles above the ground, their energy is transferred to the surrounding air, causing it to glow. The result is a meteor! The Perseid meteor shower peaks this week. If skies clear, you should see a few “shooting stars” in the sky with the maximum occurring Thursday morning, before sunrise. Though you can see meteors any time of the night, during the morning hours we are on the side of the Earth facing the meteor stream and the rates typically increase.
For: August 17-23
The Moon was “new” this past Friday meaning we’ll see a crescent in the western sky this week. On Wednesday evening, the Moon is just above the star Spica. Friday night, the Moon is to the right of Saturn, which reaches “quadrature” this week. That means the angle between the Sun, Earth, to Saturn is 90 degrees. If you own a telescope, look for the shadow of the planet on the ring system. If you don’t own a telescope, come to the CU Astronomical Society’s observatory open house this Saturday night (weather permitting) and check it out. Directions at cuas.org. Saturday morning, we’ll be at Market at the Square in Urbana looking at the Sun. Join us!
For: August 24-30
Tonight the Moon is in the south after sunset between two easily recognizable summer constellations. To the lower right of the Moon is the fishhook-shaped group we call Scorpius, the Scorpion. The heart of the scorpion is the bright star Antares, a red supergiant star over 500 light years away and the 15th brightest star in the sky. Follow the tail of the scorpion down to almost the horizon and it then curves upwards to the stinger stars, Shaula and Lesath. If you are checking them out with binoculars, look above and to the left of the pair for two beautiful star clusters known at M6 and M7. M6, the higher of the two, is also called the “Butterfly Cluster.”
For: August 31-September 8
Sometime this week, try to get away from the light pollution of the city to check out the Milky Way. It will appear like clouds in the sky and they are - star clouds! When you look at the Milky Way, you are looking into the thickest part of our galaxy, which is shaped like a dinner plate. We live roughly 2/3 of the way from the center to the edge. The Milky Way will stretch from south to north, through our summer triangle nearly overhead. If you can find this triangle, consisting of the stars Vega, Altair and Deneb, see how the Milky Way splits into two sections. This isn’t a true split, but dust in our galaxy obscures the starlight.
See Dave Leake's "Prairie Skies" column in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette each Monday morning.