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Astronomy: What to look for in the skies in December

Geminid Meteors
Geminid Meteors NASA

Here’s what to look for in the skies in December:

Evening

The early December evening sky is filled with blazing winter stars arching from the Zenith to the eastern horizon.

No visible planets until the 12th. Overhead Aries, Ram, chases the Winged Horse (Great Square of Pegasus) into the west. The delicate Seven Sisters (Pleiades cluster) lead Taurus, Bull, toward the Zenith. Ruddy Aldebaran (red giant star) is the red eye of the Bull against the V-shaped Hyades cluster (Bull’s face). Not far behind is mighty Orion, Hunter, in hot pursuit of the Bull.

Rising from horizontal slumber in the east, Orion will be on his feet in the south by midnight as the chase continues across the south all night. Early evening, Orion’s belt is vertical; his shoulder stars Betelgeuse (red supergiant star) and Bellatrix are left of the belt; bright Rigel and dim Saiph are his knee stars on the right of the belt. Binoculars enhance the color of red giants.

The Great Orion Nebula (stellar nursery) glows from his sword below his belt. The gas nebula that produces new stars is 173 trillion miles in diameter. Procyon, Little Dog, follows Orion. The Gemini Twins, Castor and Pollux, stand on the northeastern horizon. Bright Capella guides the Charioteer higher in the northeast. The Royal Family reigns in the north: King Cepheus, Queen Cassiopeia (W-shaped constellation) daughter Andromeda, holding our nearest galaxy, is near Perseus, Hero.

Mid-evening brilliant Sirius, a nearby star, is the blue eye in Orion’s Big Dog sparkling in the southeast. Fomalhaut twinkles low in the southwest in Aquarius. The Northern Cross stands on the northwestern horizon. Late evening by the end of the month, golden Jupiter appears in the east.

Dec. 12: At dusk, Mercury rises briefly above the southwestern horizon. The young crescent moon floats above Mercury.

Dec. 13: The moon hangs above the Sagittarian Teaspoon in the southwest. The Teapot is below the horizon. Aim binoculars to the dark Earthshine on the moon. Early Geminid meteors may be visible before midnight radiating from the Twins. Peak activity occurs 13th and 14th from evening to dawn.

Dec. 19: Around 8 p.m. the First Quarter Moon lies 1.2 degrees below blue-green Uranus in Pisces, Fish, in the southwest.

Dec. 21: Winter Solstice occurs at 11:48 p.m. It is the longest night of this year. Shortest daylight and longest nights will continue to the end of the year.

Dec. 22: Tonight the bright moon forms a triangle with two star clusters overhead: the Pleiades above and the Hyades below the moon.

Dec. 24: Christmas Eve the bright moon leads Orion higher in the east.

Dec. 28: Mercury reaches its highest altitude in Capricornus low in the southwest.

Dec. 31: New Year’s Eve golden Jupiter glows in the east around 11 p.m.

Morning

Early December the predawn eastern sky is accented by a parade of planets drifting across twinkling constellations.

Jupiter rises in the east around 12:30 a.m. near the hind leg of Leo, Lion. Dim ruddy Mars lies about 18 degrees below Jupiter. Descending Venus, brilliant Morning Star, glows in Virgo 15 degrees below Mars.

Mid-month, silver Saturn, in Scorpius, marks the end of the parade of planets 20 degrees below Venus. After their trip around Polaris, North Star, the Big Dipper rises higher in the northeast, and bright Arcturus sparkles beyond the Dipper’s handle.

Capella steers the Charioteer toward the northwest. The Royal Family swings lower in the northwest. Orion, Hunter, chases the Bull lower in the west followed by his Big Dog and Sirius in the south. Bright Canopus radiates rainbow colors from the ancient ship Argo low in the south.

The Pleiades lead Taurus lower in the west. The Gemini Twins slide overhead followed by the Beehive cluster in Cancer, Crab.

Dec. 1: Venus glows 4.5 degrees left of Spica in Virgo.

Dec. 3: Last Quarter Moon 2:40 a.m.

Dec. 7: About 5:30 a.m. the old moon and Venus snuggle in the southeast. Spectacular view in binoculars.

Dec. 10: At dawn huge Scorpius peers over the southeastern horizon. The old moon rises 2 degrees from Saturn on the Scorpion’s head.

Dec. 11: Venus enters Libra. Hanukkah New Moon occurs 5:29 a.m.

Dec. 13-14: In the predawn hours the Geminid meteor shower may be most active. About 75 meteors per hour may be visible from a safe area shielded from the bright city skyglow.

Dec. 18: First Quarter Moon 10:14 a.m.

Dec. 21: At dawn, Saturn rises in the southeast 6 degrees above Antares, red heart of the Scorpion.

Dec. 26: Christmas Moon is full at 6:11 a.m.

Dec. 31: By 5:30 a.m. the bright moon and Jupiter are 3 degrees apart. Comet Catalina cruises 1 degree from Arcturus.

Barb Yager: 305-661-1375, barbyager@aol.com, scas.org

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