"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 2021 sky events can be found here.
If you check the east-southeastern horizon at roughly 6 a.m. on Tuesday morning, you’ll see Saturn about four degrees to the right of Mercury with Jupiter situated below and left of the pair.
The Moon begins the week in a waxing gibbous phase, located above the familiar Orion constellation, but it ventures further eastward each night until it’s “full” Saturday evening. February’s full Moon has been called the “Snow”, “Storm”, or “Hunger” Moon. It will rise just below and left of the star Regulus, in Leo, the Lion.
Sometime this week, the Chinese Tianwen-1 spacecraft will begin orbiting the planet Mars. It will continue to orbit until May when it will release a lander with a rover.
February 28 – March 6
All this week, use binoculars to find Mars high in the southwest. It will appear as a reddish star, shining with a steady light. Follow Mars each clear night as it appears to pass just below the Pleiades star cluster. If you want more of a challenge, look east after 7 p.m. all week for the constellation Leo. It’ll appear like a backwards question mark, followed by a triangle. The brightest asteroid, Vesta, appears to come near that lower right star in the triangle this week. Use binoculars and look just northeast of the star. The two will be closest on Thursday evening. The key to asteroid hunting is to look over several nights and look for a “star” that has moved.
The Staerkel Planetarium is still offering Kaler Science talks virtually. Friday at 7 p.m., Jeff Bryant will share some of his amazing bird photography. Go to parkland.edu/planetarium and look under “events” for the Zoom link.
Early risers looking southeast near 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning will see a waning crescent Moon rising to the right of Saturn. The next morning, the Moon makes a triangle with Saturn and Jupiter, with fainter Mercury to the lower left of Jupiter. The planets will make a line extending upwards and to the right. The Moon comes between the Earth and the Sun on Saturday, meaning we’ll be able to see it in the evening sky next week.
On Thursday night, the CU Astronomical Society welcomes astrophotographer Mark Killion for a virtual presentation on capturing the sky with a camera. You can find the Zoom link on cuas.org. Mark had an image published in the April issue of Sky & Telescope magazine.
You might see the Moon low in the west tonight just after sunset. Each evening, it’ll appear a bit farther east, being near the Pleiades star cluster Thursday evening and then between Mars and the star Aldebaran on Friday evening. While you’re looking, compare Mars to Aldebaran, the red eye of Taurus, the Bull. Which appears redder? At 67 light years distant, the reddish star is the 14th brightest in our sky and has a surface temperature roughly 30% cooler than our Sun, thus the reddish color.
If you want some good news, the spring equinox occurs this Saturday at 4:37 a.m. At that time, the Sun will be directly above the Earth’s equator. We’ll see the Sun at 50 degrees altitude at mid-day.
The Moon is at first quarter phase today, situated in the constellation of Gemini. Our twin brothers are marked by the stars Pollux and Castor, situated to the upper left of the Moon tonight and above the Moon tomorrow night. The boys were the sons of the Spartan queen, Leda, but had different fathers, one being a Greek god (Zeus) and the other a mortal. Their sister was Helen of Troy. Though roughly half the stars in the sky have companions (“double stars”) Castor is a sextuplet system!
On Tuesday evening the Moon is above and right of the Beehive Star Cluster in the constellation of Cancer. For those with binoculars, see if you can find this loose grouping of forty or so stars.
March 28 – April 3
Today is the day of the full Moon. April’s Moon has been called the “Worm Moon” as earthworms will start to appear as the ground thaws, which, in turn, brings back the birds. March’s full Moon, if it occurs late in the month, typically signals the beginning of Passover for those celebrating the Jewish faith. And for Christians, Easter is the first Sunday after the first full Moon after the vernal equinox. That puts Easter on April 4 this year and illustrates why the dates of both move around from year to year.
On Friday evening, UI engineer Daniel Andruczyk discusses plasma-material interactions in the last Kaler Science Lecture offered virtually by the Staerkel Planetarium. See their web site for the link.