Saturday is Astronomy Day

April 20, 2018 GMT

More than four centuries ago, Galileo studied the heavens for the first time through a telescope and began to change forever our understanding of the universe and our place within it.

In the time since then, the frontiers of discovery have, for the most part, moved beyond the scope of small telescopes. Professional astronomers use giant instruments operated (often remotely) on distant mountains or even in space. Yet, personal discoveries still are made all the time with telescopes similar to the one Galileo first used.

There is something remarkable and completely unique about a person’s first, real glimpse of the craters of the moon or the rings of Saturn through a telescope.

Astronomy enthusiasts and professionals know this feeling well, and there’s nothing we enjoy more than sharing it with others. That was the impetus for the creation of Astronomy Day, a biannual event first organized in 1973 by the Astronomical Association of Northern California.

In the decades since, Astronomy Day has grown to a worldwide event focused on giving the public a chance to connect with the night skies. All around the country, events are organized that offer glimpses of the heavens through community observatories, dark-sky sites and telescopes set up for sidewalk viewing.

Astronomy Day takes place Saturday, and there are several events to be aware of in our community and across northern Illinois for those looking to discover. Whether you want to stay in town or venture afield, astronomers and amateur observers alike are eager to help you capture those first engaging glimpses of the heavens through a telescope. Here are a list of some Astronomy Day events for this year, beginning here in our community:

Kankakee Area Stargazers

Start Saturday morning with the monthly meeting of the Kankakee area’s own local astronomy club. Learn about the latest NASA happenings and connect with other astronomy enthusiasts at their April club meeting, free and open to the public. The club meets in Room 212 of Reed Hall of Science on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University at 10 a.m.

Weather permitting, the Stargazers also will be hosting sidewalk observing beginning at sunset at the planetarium. For more information, as well as details on other observing opportunities, visit kasg.org.

Strickler Planetarium

Regardless of weather, get up close and personal with stars and other celestial wonders with the showings of “STARS” at 6 and 7:30 p.m. at ONU’s Strickler Planetarium.

Follow the stars from birth to death and beyond with this immersive educational experience, narrated by Star Wars’ Mark Hamill. This is the perfect prelude to a night of observation. For more details, visit strickler.olivet.edu.

At Lowell, Ind.

If you’re interested in traveling farther afield for Astronomy Day, the Calumet Astronomy Society, one of the most active astronomy clubs in the region, is hosting an open house at the Conway Observatory just southeast of Lowell, Ind. From 8 to 10 p.m., weather permitting, the observatory will be open for public viewing from a dark-sky location.

Further information, as well as maps to the observatory, can be found at casonline.org. Because the event is contingent on weather, please check the website for updates before making the trip.

In the suburbs

For an evening of astronomy education, rain or shine, the Northwest Suburban Astronomers and the Harper College Department of Physics in Palatine are hosting an astronomy open house on Astronomy Day, beginning at 6 p.m. This event is free and open to the public and will include talks on everything from the Antikythera Mechanism (an ancient Greek device for calculating planetary orbits and eclipses) to the Rosetta Mission. More information, including a full schedule of the event, can be found at nsaclub.org.

Lyrid meteor shower

Fortuitously, Astronomy Day this year also coincides with the Lyrid meteor shower, which is forecast to peak in the early morning hours of Sunday.

The Lyrids are among the most ancient documented meteor showers, with records of this spectacle going back thousands of years.

The nearly first-quarter moon, which will be overhead at sunset but sets by midnight, will do little to wash out the view. This also will make the evening perfect for observing with telescopes, assuming, of course, the skies are clear. A first-quarter moon is the ideal time to view details on the moon’s surface, but it sets early enough to allow for dark-sky observing later.

To spot the Lyrids, bundle up and find a spot where you have a clear view of the majority of the sky, especially toward the east. Lyrids can be spotted anywhere in the sky, but they all appear to radiate from the constellation Lyra, which will rise in the northeast about 10 p.m. and be overhead by dawn.

On an average night, a patient viewer might see 10 to 20 “shooting stars,” or meteors. During the Lyrid, rates of meteors might be that many per hour. Don’t look directly toward the radiant, however, as the meteors with the longest trails can be elsewhere in the sky.

Those brilliant streaks are caused by debris raining into the Earth’s atmosphere. Though it’s impossible to predict when a particular shooting star will occur, these spikes in meteoric activity are predictable. The Lyrid shower, for instance, occurs each year when the Earth moves through the debris left in the orbit of Comet Thatcher, which itself is long gone. It last visited the solar system in 1861 and won’t return again for more than 250 years. But its dusty trail still contains a lot of tiny debris that falls into our atmosphere as Earth sweeps through it. And the debris is moving fast. By the time it enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it could have a velocity of up to 30 miles per second.

So this month, there are plenty of options for the curious sky-watcher, especially on Astronomy Day itself.

Consider visiting the planetarium and observing with the Kankakee Area Stargazers here in town. Or make a journey to a new viewing location, such as the Compton Observatory (if the night is clear) or the Harper University astronomy open house (if it’s not).

Whatever you do, make a night of it and stay up hunting for shooting stars as well. The skies are full of potential sights every night of the year, but on Astronomy Day, you’ve got a special excuse to spend some time searching them out!