December 2011

Long nights, a couple planets, and the introduction of the winter constellations makes December a good month to get outside and look up at night.  Oh yeah, plus there's the holiday break thrown in there.

EVENTS...

First Quarter Moon - 2nd (Visible until midnight)

5th, 6th - Close Encounter - Moon & Jupiter - Look to the East after sunset on the 5th and you'll see Jupiter about 9˚ (about a fist-width at arm's length) to the left of the Moon.  As the night of the 5th turns into the morning of the 6th, you'll see them both moving up and toward the South, getting closer.  If you're looking on 6th, find the Moon in the East after sunset and Jupiter will be about 6˚ below the Moon.  A great pair to look at through binoculars!

Full Moon - 10th (Visible all night - East around sunset, West around Sunrise)

13th, 14th - Geminid Meteor Shower - Any time of the night you can see some of these, however, the gibbous Moon will be keeping you from seeing most of them.

Some advice for watching:

Find a dark location

Lie down in a reclining chair or swimming pool floaty

Look toward Gemini (in the East). That is where the radiant is - where the meteors will appear to be coming from.  Keep a wide eye and try to take in the whole sky, instead of staring at one spot or through binoculars or a telescope.

Dress in multiple layers and bring hot chocolate

Check the weather to see if the skies will be clear (weather.com has a good map here)

Adapt your eyes to the dark by staying away from light sources or using a red light if you need to look at a star chart or not trip over something.  The moon will be well lit, so try not to look at that as it will also interfere with your night vision.

Last Quarter Moon - 17th (Visible from midnight into the morning)

17th - Close Encounter - Moon & Mars - Go out after midnight and find the half lit  Moon in the East.  Mars is only about 8˚ to the left of the Moon.  Look for the reddish object under Leo.

19th, 20th - Close Encounter - Moon & Saturn - Look to the southeast before sunrise and find the crescent Moon.  Saturn will be the bright object about 13˚ down and to the left of the Moon on the 19th and 7˚ up and to the left on the 20th.  These are really interesting in binoculars, given Saturn's rings and the Moon's craters that are more easily seen in the crescent phase.

22nd - Winter Solstice - Shortest day and longest night of the year for those in the Northern Hemisphere

22nd, 23rd - Close Encounter - Moon & Mercury - Look ESE before sunrise.  9˚ to the left of the Moon on the morning of the 22nd and 6˚ above the Moon on the 23rd, though you'll have to be really observant to see the very thin crescent Moon.

New Moon - 24th (darkest skies)

26th, 27th - Close Encounter - Moon & Venus - Look SW after sunset.  On the 26th, the very thin crescent Moon will be about 7˚ to the right of Venus and on the 27th, the Moon will be about 7˚ above Venus.

PLANETS...well, the ones visible with your naked eye

Planets you can see around Sunset - Venus (SW), Jupiter (ESE)

Planets you can see throughout the night - Jupiter (EàSàW)

Planets you can see in the Morning - Mars (S), Saturn (SE), Mercury (ESE)

Mercury - Could be a nice Christmas treat, since it reaches greatest elongation on the 23rd.  This means that on the 23rd, it'll be the highest in the sky that it'll get for a while.  Look ESE before sunrise.  9˚ to the left of the Moon on the morning of the 22nd and 6˚ above the Moon on the 23rd, though you'll have to be really observant to see the very thin crescent Moon.

Venus - Look SW after sunset.  If you're looking with your naked eye, it is the brightest object about 15˚ above the southwestern horizon.  Below the horizon after 6pm.  Close to the Moon on the 26th and 27th right after sunset in the SW.

Mars - Rising around midnight or earlier in the East, and rises up to about 45˚ above the southern horizon by sunrise.  Look for the constellation of Leo and look for the reddish hued point of light - use a star chart to help.  Above the 3rd Quarter Moon on the 17th.

JUPITER - Already in the southeast right at sunset and making its way up and to the South throughout the night, setting around 2am.  Close to the Moon on the 5th and 6thExtra Challenge! Point some binoculars toward Jupiter.  You should be able to see the four moons of Jupiter right next to it - Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto - in different configurations each night.  To see these bright points even better, use a telescope.  You may even be able to see the cloud bands on Jupiter.

Saturn - Look SE before sunrise and Saturn will make an appearance up to 30˚ above the horizon. Beautifully about 7˚ above a thin Crescent Moon on the morning of the 20th.

CONSTELLATIONS... (see sky map link at the bottom for a Star Map for this month - or ask Mr. Webb)    Look straight up and you'll see...

After Sunset (sunset is around 5:00pm) - Pegasus, Andromeda - Extra Challenge! Using your naked eye (dark-adapted and in a dark area) or binoculars under normal conditions and a star chart, try finding our neighboring Andromeda Galaxy.  It'll be a faint, but bigger, fuzzy in the constellation Andromeda.

Between Sunset and Midnight - Perseus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia

Midnight - Auriga, Taurus, Gemini

Early Morning - Ursa Major's legs, Leo Minor

GENERAL CONSTELLATION FINDING TIPS:

Winter constellations: Orion is easy to spot as he is rising in the East around 7:30pm.  You can use Orion to find many other winter constellations.

Using Orion: Find Orion by looking for the three stars in a row that make up Orion's belt in the East around 9pm.  If you draw a line from the left star to the right star and keep going right about 20 degrees (about 2 fists at arm's length) until you reach another very bright star, you will have reached the star Aldebaron in Taurus (the V).  Follow that line a little more (about another fist) and you'll find the Pleiades.

Draw a line from the right star in Orion's belt to the left star, and keep going left about 20 degrees (2 fists again), you'll come to the brightest star in the sky - Sirius - part of Canis Major.

Above these three constellations are Gemini and Auriga.  The brightest stars in each of these constellations form a circle in the sky.  Going clockwise - Aldebaron (Taurus) - Rigel (Orion - bottom right foot) - Sirius (Canis Major) - Procyon (Canis Minor) - Castor & Pollux (Gemini) - Capella (Auriga).  It makes for great stargazing in the winter sky.

Use a sky map from www.skymaps.com to help you out.



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