Dave Leake's preview of 2019 sky events can be found here.
For: February 25-March 3
If you have been watching Mercury get higher in the west after sunset, tomorrow night it reaches its greatest separation from the Sun. You’ll still be looking low in the evening twilight but there are few bright stars in the area to confuse for Mercury. You’ll need an unobstructed horizon. This will be the best view of Mercury until June. Wednesday morning early risers will find a thick waning crescent Moon very near Jupiter. This Friday at the planetarium, meteorologist Andrew Pritchard takes us tornado chasing in the next Kaler Science Lecture at 7pm. “Secrets of the Sun” opens at 8pm and we’ll do a little loud Pink Floyd at 9pm both Friday and Saturday night.
For: March 4-10
Wednesday’s New Moon means we’ll have a lovely crescent Moon in our evening sky this coming weekend. Look for it Sunday night below Mars in the west. This weekend we also set our clocks forward an hour. Keep that in mind when you consider attending the first open house of the year for the CU Astronomical Society (cuas.org) Saturday night. As the Sun sets this week, look nearly straight up for the pentagon-shaped constellation of Auriga. Auriga is a “charioteer;” like an ancient Uber driver. And he’s holding three baby goats! The brightest stars in the group is Capella, the 3rd brightest in the sky that we can see. The name means “little goat.” So what’s this with goats?
For: March 11-17
Tonight, Mars is just to the right of the crescent Moon. Recall Mars was only 35 million miles from our Earth last July, but the Earth has been pulling away from Mars in its faster orbit. Tonight Mars will be 173 million miles from us so it will look pretty tiny through a telescope. Join the CU Astronomical Society at their monthly meeting Thursday evening, 7pm, at the planetarium as our guest will be Renae Kerrigan from the Peoria Riverfront Museum who will talk about her adventures at the observatory complexes in Chile. As a challenge, look below Orion and right of the star Sirius for a fainter group of stars that I think looks like a helicopter. This is Lepus, the Hare!
For: March 18-24
After the winter we’ve had, join me in shouting this loudly – spring begins Wednesday! Yes, it’s about time! At 4:58pm Wednesday, the Sun will be situated above our planet’s equator and we have the vernal equinox. Residence living along the equator will see no shadows at local noon. We will see the Sun about five fists high at noon. Be careful driving as the Sun will rise and set in the middle of an east/west street. It’s also the date of the full Moon. March’s full Moon is called the Worm, Crow or Sap Moon. Want another sign of spring? The backwards-question-mark-shaped constellation of Leo, the Lion, is about halfway up in the east now.
For: March 25-31
This week through the first week of April, use your binoculars and watch Mars pass close to the Pleiades or Seven Sisters star cluster. The Pleiades is a famous star cluster over 400 light years from us. The stars are roughly 100 million years old (young by star standards) and very blue. They mark the seven daughters of Atlas. There are other sisters nearby, though. On the other side of Mars is the Hyades cluster. These stars, marking the V-shaped face of our bull, are over six times older than the Pleiades stars and about three times closer, too. In fact, the Hyades is the nearest open cluster in our sky. Check it out this week.
For: April 1-7
Our last James Kaler Science Lecture of the academic year is this Friday at 7pm. We welcome Dr. Andrew Schwing to the dome to talk about advances in Artificial Intelligence. Admission is $2 at the door. It is also Dark Sky Week across the country. Why not get away from the city lights and see how the sky looks different without the city skyglow. Better yet, take a critical look at your own home lighting. Are you lighting the areas that need light? Are you creating hard shadows where prowlers can hide? Are you wasting energy by shining light upwards? By reflecting light downward, you may be able to use a lower wattage bulb and now you’re saving money!
See Dave Leake's "Prairie Skies" column in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette each Monday morning.