Click here for Dave Leake's preview of sky events for 2015!
For: December 22-28
Tomorrow evening, look roughly thirty minutes after sunset for a very thin crescent Moon low in the southwest. Then carefully look below the Moon, towards the horizon, for the planet Venus. Venus will gradually get higher in our sky if you don’t see it tomorrow night. It is in the process of coming around from behind the Sun so we’ll have it in our evening sky for the next seven months. On Wednesday evening, the Moon is higher and to the right of Mars. We’ll have first quarter Moon in Pisces by week’s end. Whatever you celebrate this time of the year, the staff of the Staerkel Planetarium wishes you and yours a very happy holiday!
For: December 29 – January 4
I hope Santa was good to you! If, by chance, you are the proud owner a new telescope or binoculars, take them outside and look for Orion, our mighty hunter. The three belt stars making a diagonal line are due south, about halfway up in our sky, at 10 p.m. this week. Look beneath the middle star for the Orion Nebula. You can spy the nebula with just your eyes if the sky is dark enough. This star forming region is over 1300 light years away. The cloud is a favorite target for the Hubble Space Telescope. Check out hubblesite.org for amazing images. The star to the lower left of Orion is Sirius, the brightest star in our night sky.
For: January 5-11
At Thursday’s CU Astronomical Society meeting at the planetarium, we’ll be looking at some of the sky events that will be occurring this year. Join us at 7pm if you can. There’s a lot to talk about, even this week. See if you can find the planet Venus low in the southwestern sky. Start looking while the sky is still light as Venus is pretty bright. To the lower right of Venus will be fainter Mercury. Each evening the pair will be getting a little higher in the sky and closer together. By Saturday evening they are less than a degree apart! If you want a list of 2015 sky events, go to www.parkland.edu/planetarium and look under “Night Sky.”
For: January 12-18
If you get up before the Sun Friday morning, look in the southeast for a thin crescent Moon very near Saturn. It is interesting how the two look so near each other but, in reality, Saturn is well over 4000 times farther away than our Moon! The Staerkel Planetarium reopens for business this weekend with a brand new fulldome show called “Supervolcanoes.” The program examines supervolcanoes in history on our Earth as well as those in our solar system today. Could one erupt in our country in the future? There is some fascinating time-lapse video from Yellowstone Park included. “Supervolcanoes” will show at 8pm both Friday and Saturday night to the end of February.
For: January 19-25
Tuesday’s New Moon makes for a nice dark sky to look for Comet Lovejoy. This comet was discovered by Australian Terry Lovejoy last August. As it nears the Sun, it brightens and may be within reach of binoculars this week. Lovejoy was closest to the Earth on January 7 but we suspect it will continue to brighten as it draws nearer to the Sun. If you can find the Pleiades or Seven Sisters star cluster, you should be able to find the comet. Look several binocular fields-of-view to the west. The comet will proceed north each night. To print a finder chart, go to: http://www.skyandtelescope.com/wp-content/uploads/Lovejoy2_BW.pdf. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know what you see.
For: January 26-February 1
Get the telescope or binoculars out tonight and check out the first quarter Moon. The name has caused some confusion in classrooms as the Moon appears half-lit but we call it a “quarter.” The “quarter” comes from the fact the Moon is ¼ of the way around our Earth in its monthly orbit. From our vantage point, the sunlight is hitting the Moon at right angles to us so crater walls and lunar mountains cast long shadows. The Moon will take on a 3D appearance through the eyepiece. Tonight’s Moon is south of the stars of Aries. Wednesday it heads eastward for the face of our celestial bull and then over the top of Orion by the weekend.
For: February 2-8
The planetarium hosts a “volcano doubleheader” Friday night. At 7pm, Parkland instructor Julie Angel takes us on a visual tour of Mt. St. Helens as part of our science lecture series. This will be followed by our newest fulldome program, “Supervolcanoes!” Saturday brings us the opposition of Jupiter. This just means that our Earth and Jupiter are on the same side of the Sun, thus Jupiter appears opposite the Sun. It will rise as the Sun sets and appear large and bright in the sky. Look for Jupiter at sunset, rising just north of east. It will lead the stars of Leo, our Lion, across the sky. Leo’s face looks like a backwards question mark.
See Dave Leake's "Prairie Skies" column in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette each Monday morning.