"Tonight's Sky" is written by retired planetarium director Dave Leake and reprinted with his permission. See Dave Leake's Prairie Skies column in the Champaign–Urbana News-Gazette each Sunday. Dave Leake's preview of 2020 sky events can be found here.
March 22 – 28
Be sure to notice the planet Venus in the western sky after sunset this week. It’ll be the brightest star-like object there. On Thursday evening, Venus reaches its greatest separation from the Sun at 46 degrees – over four fists held at arm’s length! Venus now sets four hours after the Sun and appears roughly half-lit through the telescope. On Friday evening you’ll find a thin crescent Moon below the planet. Saturday is the first open house at the CUAS observatory complex, southwest of the airport. See cuas.org for directions. The fun starts at dusk if the weather allows. Come check out Venus and the Orion Nebula with us. Call 351-2567 if the weather can’t make up its mind.
March 29 – April 4
Due to COVID-19, events are being canceled or postponed, but we can still step outside and check out the sky. Use binoculars to see Venus high in the west in the evening. Venus passes in front of the Pleiades star cluster Friday. In the morning sky, Mars catches up with the more distant Saturn. Look in the southeast early Tuesday morning to see them closest by less than a degree! The pair will appear about the same in brightness, though Saturn is seven times farther from us. Note the separation between Jupiter and Saturn, too, as they’ll appear much closer together this December. The science talk on birds to be held this Friday at the planetarium is being postponed. They may try to reschedule for May.
April 5 – 11
Tuesday’s full Moon is the “Pink Moon,” named for early blooming spring flowers. It can also be called the “Sprouting Grass Moon.” Some parts of my lawn could almost be mowed! Saturday morning, look southeast an hour before sunrise for three planets nearly evenly separated and in a line. Mars will be furthest left, then Saturn, then Jupiter. Jupiter will be the brightest of the three. The Moon will join the trio next week. You won’t need a dark sky to see these planets so step outside and check them out! The CU Astronomical Society would normally meet this Thursday at 7pm with an interesting program on the skies over Chile, but check their Facebook page for updates.
April 12 – 18
Venus is still very high in our western evening sky, but it’ll soon begin to descend towards the Sun. In April its set time decreases from four to 3.5 hours after the Sun, but this number will decrease rapidly in May. Venus will pass between Earth and the Sun in late May, so we see it swinging around the Sun and towards us. As the distance decreases, it’ll appear to transition from half-lit to a crescent shape. You might be able to see the crescent in binoculars. The Moon is a third quarter phase Tuesday and will be just below Saturn on Wednesday morning. The Saturday Starwatch at the Middle Fork River Forest Preserve is being postponed to a later date.
April 19 – 25
This week is Champaign County Dark Sky Week, a time dedicated to appreciating the dark sky. Though nearly all of the activities planned for this week were canceled due to the virus, you can still participate. We’re not asking you to turn your lights off unless, of course, you’re not using them. Look at your home at night and evaluate your own lighting. Do existing lights shine in neighboring windows? Do your lights create harsh shadows where a robber might hide? Any light shining upwards is wasted – could you direct light downward, maybe using a reflector? Maybe use a lower wattage bulb? Go to darksky.org and scroll to down to “our programs” for more info. Participate with us!
April 26 – May 2
Look for the Moon tonight just to the left of Venus in the west. The Moon appearing near Venus, the second and third brightest objects in our sky, is always a beautiful sight. The pair will be more difficult to see next month so check them out tonight. Notice the three belt stars of Orion to the left and then brilliant Sirius, further left, in the southwest. Now spin and around and face the northeast to see if you can spy a bright star rising. This is Vega, the third brightest of the stars we can see, and part of our summer triangle. Did you just see the word “summer” printed there? Bring it!