Click here for Dave Leake's preview of sky events for 2015!
For: June 15-21
This Friday night the planetarium opens “Summer Prairie Skies,” our live tour of the current night sky, at 7pm. The craze in the planetarium biz are fulldome movies, but we still pride ourselves on our live programming. We love interacting with audiences. Learn a few constellations and then put your new-found knowledge to use as Saturday is the next open house at the CU Astronomical Society observatory (weather permitting). Of course this one won’t start until nearly 9pm because Sunday is the summer solstice and the longest day of the year! It won’t get dark until late. Saturday night a lovely crescent Moon makes a triangle with Jupiter and Venus low in the west.
For: June 22-28
Wednesday’s first quarter Moon will be situated to the right of the star Spica. By Sunday the nearly full Moon is just left of Saturn in the southeast. If you’d like a challenge, later Sunday evening, the dark edge of the Moon will cover the star Theta Librae. Start looking just before 9:30 and see if you can watch the star blink out behind the Moon. Events like this are called “occultations” and were our first evidence that the Moon didn’t possess an atmosphere. Can you see the star in the glare of the Moon? For the early risers, look for Mercury in the east-northeast an hour before sunrise. This is one of the better morning views of Mercury for the year.
For: June 29-July 5
The event skywatchers have been anticipating for the last few months occurs tomorrow night in the western sky. For the last few months, we have watched the planets Venus and Jupiter (the brightest objects in the sky besides the Sun and Moon) draw closer together among the stars of Leo, the Lion. Tomorrow night they’ll be less than a degree apart! It should be quite a sight! Can you split them without optical aid? Venus will be 55 times brighter than Jupiter, due mostly to the fact it is over seven times closer to us. Keep watching the pair as they’ll now separate with Jupiter appearing to move to the right of Venus.
For: July 6-12
“Pluto-palooza” begins this week and continues into next week! The New Horizons spacecraft will reach the dwarf planet Pluto next week and there are plenty of events going on. This Thursday, Michael Johnson will give a talk on the New Horizons mission as part of the CU Astronomical Society’s monthly meeting (7pm at the planetarium). Friday, members of the Twin City Astronomical Society hope to observe the sky from Streator, hometown of Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto’s discoverer (Streator.org). Sunday, join me at the Champaign Public Library for a talk about Pluto (3pm). And Pluto reaches “opposition” tonight in eastern Sagittarius, though you’ll need at least a 12-inch telescope and some good charts to see it!
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.
See Dave Leake's "Prairie Skies" column in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette each Monday morning.