Click here for Dave's preview of sky events in 2016.
For: August 22-28
Mars resumed its west to east motion against the background stars back in early July. Tuesday evening, Mars will finally pass between Saturn and the bright red star Antares. Look south and compare the reddish color of Mars to the red of Antares. Can you see how someone might confuse the star for Mars? Watch over several evenings and you can actually see a planet orbiting the Sun. Join me Friday night as we will observe the sky from Urbana’s Sweetcorn Festival. We will be near the One Community Together stage. Saturday evening Venus and Jupiter pass within a half degree of each other but you have to locate a low horizon to catch them.
For: August 29-September 4
If you hear about a solar eclipse on Thursday, yes, it is happening but we can’t see it from Illinois. Ideally you’d have to be in Central Africa to see it. This is an “annular eclipse” like we had here in May, 1994, where the Moon is a little farther away from the Earth and thus doesn’t completely cover the Sun. So it looks like a ring in the sky. For this event, the Sun won’t be above the horizon when the Moon passes in front of it. In fact, the eclipse starts after 2am our time. The Astronomical Society of South Africa is planning on live streaming the event at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xebDaX1PJF0. If you’re up, check it out!
For: September 5-11
Look Wednesday evening in the southwest for a nearly first quarter Moon making a horizontal line with the planets Mars and Saturn. Thursday night, the Moon is above Saturn. Mars will be to the left and fading in brightness with each week. At Thursday evening’s CU Astronomical Society meeting, hear Eric Morganson, research scientist with the Dark Energy Survey, discuss mapping the Milky Way (7pm, planetarium, free!). Friday, the planetarium opens a brand new fulldome show called “Solar Superstorms,” featuring imagery created by the Advanced Visualization Lab on the UIUC campus. We’re excited about this never-before-seen trip into the Sun using real data! There is a free CUAS Observatory open house Saturday night, weather permitting (cuas.org).
For: September 12-18
After sunset this week, look to the northwest for the familiar Big Dipper. The dipper is above the horizon all year but, in late summer, it appears rightside-up and actually looks like a frying pan. Venus can be seen just south of west in the twilight and Mars and Saturn inhabit the southwest. On Tuesday, Mars is as far from Earth as the Earth is from the Sun. This distance will increase as the Earth races ahead in its faster orbit. Our fall constellations are making their presence known with the Great Square of Pegasus rising in the east at sunset. From your backyard, it may look more like a diamond shape. While you’re at it, look for the W-shaped Cassiopeia in the northeast.
For: September 19-25
This Thursday is the autumnal equinox! At 9:21am CDT, the Sun will be directly above the Earth’s equator, bringing roughly equal hours of daylight and night to Central Illinois. Note how the Sun will also rise due east and set due west on this date. Be careful if you are driving home from work on east/west street towards the Sun! Thursday night, I’ll be venturing to Kennekuk County Park, just northwest of Danville, for a star party hosted by Father Sauppe of St. Mary’s in Westville. Join us from 6:30 to 8pm if the weather permits. We hope to check out the planets early though the last quarter Moon won’t rise until after 11pm.
For: September 26 – October 2
Though Jupiter passes behind the Sun tonight, there’s still plenty to see this week. Venus rises higher in the west, setting not until 8pm this week. Wednesday morning, Mercury has its best dawn appearance of the year. It will rise due east at 5:30am, at the start of morning twilight. Look for it just below a very thin Moon. In early October, Mercury will head back towards the Sun. If you miss this chance at seeing Mercury, you’ll have another in December. Wednesday night, those with binoculars might see Mars pass just below the Lagoon Nebula in the southwest. Saturday night, weather permitting, CU Astronomical Society telescopes visit Homer Lake for a program and observing.
See Dave Leake's "Prairie Skies" column in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette each Monday morning.