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Galaxy Club

Tonight's Sky

comet photo by Read Dave Leake's preview of sky events for 2014


For: August 11-17

The annual Perseid meteor shower peaks Tuesday night into Wednesday morning. The problem will be a bright Moon in our sky, two days past full, which will mask many of the meteors in the sky. If you rise early Sunday morning, look near the horizon just north of east for Venus and Jupiter less than a half degree apart. This is as close as they have been since 2000! To see the third and fourth brightest things in the sky this close is worth an early alarm. At Thursday’s CU Astronomical Society meeting at the planetarium I’ll be sharing images from a trip to the Elgin Observatory and how astronomy can be used to set watches.

For: August 18-24

This coming weekend we’ll watch the planet Mars pass “underneath” Saturn in the southwest. The pair will come to within 3.5 degrees of each other on Sunday evening. Of course, Saturn is much farther away than Mars so they’re not really close, but we see them that way. With Mars being closer to the Sun, it orbits faster. Hence, Saturn gets lapped! If you get up early Saturday morning, you’ll find a lovely crescent Moon just to the right of our two morning planets, Venus and Jupiter. The two were closest this past weekend and will now separate with Jupiter getting higher in the sky. Venus will gradually get nearer to the Sun until it passes behind the Sun in late October.

For: August 25-31

This Friday, a thin crescent Moon can be seen in the southwest. Sunday, the Moon will move to make a nice triangle with Mars and Saturn with Mars sitting below the Moon. Friday is also Neptune’s “opposition,” meaning the farthest planet in the solar system is closest to us. Still, that’s 2,695,791,000 miles distant! Despite its proximity, you’ll still need a good quality telescope to see it. Why not visit the CU Astronomical Society observatory this Saturday for our next free open house. If clouds permit, we’ll be looking at the Moon and Saturn ( By 11pm, the summer triangle is high on a north-south line with the Milky Way running right through it from northeast to southwest.

For: September 1-7

At 9 p.m. this week, the three stars of the Summer Triangle sit high on a north-south line. Starting at top left, the stars are Deneb, then Vega, and Altair is the lowest of the three. The triangle, like the Big Dipper, isn’t technically a “constellation” as it’s not on the official list of 88 constellations. Vega is the brightest of the three in the tiny constellation of Lyra, our harp. Deneb is the tail of Cygnus, the swan, though see if you can understand why amateurs call the star pattern the “northern cross.” Deneb is over 50,000 times brighter than our Sun and only its distance from us keeps us from casting shadows due to its tremendous light!

For: September 8-14

Look for the full Moon rising at sunset tonight. This is another one of those “supermoons” publicized in the media. August’s full Moon was a bit closer but only by a fraction of a percent. Tonight’s full Moon will only 7% larger than average and, if the term “supermoon” had not be introduced into society, most probably no one would notice! But if it gets you out looking at the Moon, I’m happy! The Moon routinely is either a little closer or farther in its orbit around the Earth – it can vary by 30,000 miles or so. Now if the Moon looks large when it is rising, this is the “Moon Illusion” which can happen with any Moon phase.

For: September 15-21

Friday night, “Fall Prairie Skies” opens at the Staerkel Planetarium at 7 p.m. In the age of push-button planetarium shows, we pride ourselves on our live programming. Come by for an indoor sky tour! Then take your new-found knowledge out with the CU Astronomical Society as they take telescopes to the Middle Fork Forest Preserve (northeast of Rantoul) Saturday night (weather permitting). There will be a program at the activity center at 8pm with observing to follow. These are some of the darkest skies in the county! I always look forward to peering into the star clouds of the Milky Way as they cross from north to south. I hope you’ll join us!

For: September 22-28

We have the autumnal equinox tonight at 9:29 p.m. as the Sun sits high above the Earth’s equator. There are several observing opportunities this week. Thursday, telescopes will be set-up at Meadowbrook Park for “Take a Child Outside” week. Saturday morning, we hope to get some good views of the Sun with special filters as the CU Astro Society partakes in Market at the Square in Urbana. Saturday night is another free open house at the CUAS Observatory between Champaign and Sadorus. We hope to be looking at Mars and Saturn. A crescent Moon will be to the lower right of Saturn on this evening. All events are weather permitting. See for details.

For: September 29-October 5

Tonight, look to the southwest for the Moon just above the planet Mars. Look for a reddish tint to the planet, then compare Mars to the bright star just below it, as it is red, too! Antares is the heart of our celestial scorpion, a red supergiant star, much larger than our Sun. It is estimated to be six Earth/Sun distances in diameter!! The name “Antares” means “the rival of Mars” or simply “not Mars!” I guess others got the two confused, too! Compare the colors on your own. Friday night is the first of six “World of Science” talks at the planetarium. We welcome Dr. Nathan Schroeder to the dome to talk about nematodes. Admission is just a buck.

See Dave Leake's "Prairie Skies" column in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette each Monday morning.