January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Celestial Highlights, December 2015 Through Early January 2016

Posted: Friday, December 11th, 2015

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller.

In evening twilight in December, the Summer Triangle is well up in the west, getting lower as the month progresses. Its brightest member is blue-white Vega, at its northwest (lower right) corner. Altair marks the southern point of the Triangle, and Deneb the northeast corner, above Vega. [Follow the Summer Triangle within the first hour after sunset until mid-January.]

Solitary Fomalhaut, marking the mouth of the Southern Fish, drifts low across the southern sky in December evening twilight. From late in December’s second week into early January, try for Mercury very low in the southwestern twilight glow; binoculars make the search easier.

Yellowish Capella climbs in the northeast, while to its lower right, ascending in east-northeast to east, we find red-orange Aldebaran, eye of Taurus the Bull. This star is at opposition to the Sun each year around the start of December, so as we gaze at that star then, we face almost directly away from the Sun. Low in the east below Taurus, rising into view during twilight in late December, we find Orion’s two brightest stars, reddish Betelgeuse marking one shoulder, and blue-white Rigel marking his upraised foot. Robert Frost, in the opening lines of his poem The Star Splitter, described the scene: “You know Orion always comes up sideways, throwing one leg up over our fence of mountains…” Rising at about the same time, or just a bit later from southern California, are Pollux (and Castor above it, not plotted because it is not quite first magnitude), the bright stars of Gemini, the Twins.

In December’s morning twilight, Venus, in the southeast, ranks first in brilliance. Next is Jupiter, high in the southern sky. Third in brightness is twinkling Sirius before it sets in west-southwest, and next a nearly 3-way tie between Arcturus very high in east to southeast, Vega ascending in northeast, and Capella sinking in northwest.

Before Rigel sets south of west, look for the Winter Hexagon. In clockwise order beginning at Sirius, its other members are Procyon, Pollux (with Castor), Capella, Aldebaran, Rigel, and back to Sirius, with Betelgeuse inside. At month’s end, all that remains of the Hexagon in morning twilight is an arch, in order from W to NW, Procyon, Pollux (with Castor), and Capella.

Regulus marks the heart of Leo the Lion, chasing the Hexagon across the sky. Regulus is within 0.5° north of the ecliptic (plane of Earth’s orbit). Following Regulus and in line with it is an almost straight lineup of planets Jupiter-Mars-Venus, and finally Saturn, emerging in the southeast by the middle of December. Blue-white Spica, only 2° S of the ecliptic, appears not far off the lineup of planets: Venus passed 4.2° N of Spica on Nov. 29, and contrastingly colored, dim, red Mars will pass 3.6° N of that star on Dec. 23. By the latter date, Antares will have emerged some 6° to the south (lower right) of Saturn. Venus will appear very close to Saturn on Jan. 8 and 9. The Moon passes all these planets and bright zodiacal stars as listed below.

One additional star appears on our December morning twilight chart: Deneb, rising in the far northeast late in month, to the lower left of Vega. By mid-January, watch for Altair, the south point of the Summer Triangle, rising just north of due east. For a few days in mid-January, the Summer Triangle, well north of the plane of Earth’s orbit, is visible low in W to NW at dusk and low in E to NE at dawn.

Watch for these events:

  • Fri. Dec. 4, morning–Jupiter 5° upper right of Moon.
  • Sat. Dec. 5, morning–Mars 5°-6° lower left of Moon.
  • Sun. Dec. 6, morning–Spica 5° lower right of Moon.
  • Mon. Dec. 7, morning–Spica midway between Venus and Mars, 10° from each. Spectacular close conjunction of crescent Moon and Venus in morning twilight. Continue observing after sunrise and witness a daytime occultation of Venus by the Moon. From Los Angeles, binoculars and telescopes show the leading sunlit edge of Moon covering Venus at 8:04 a.m. PST, and the trailing dark edge of Moon (invisible in daylight) uncovering Venus at 9:53-9:54 a.m. From Palm Springs, these events occur about 4-5 minutes later. From San Francisco, Venus is covered from about 7:53 a.m. until 9:38 a.m.; from Sacramento, about 1-2 minutes later. For California, the covering of Venus begins near 7:53 a.m. PST along the northwest coast, and sweeps across to the southeast corner of the state by 8:20 a.m. The uncovering sweeps across the state from the northwest corner to the southeast during 9:25 a.m. until 10:01 a.m. While Venus isn’t covered, this is a great chance to use the Moon to help locate Venus in the daytime! Telescopes show Venus now in gibbous phase.After Dec. 7, the waning Moon can be followed for 2-3 additional mornings. On Thurs. Dec. 10, 40 minutes before sunup, try for the very thin old crescent, only 20-21 hours before New, very low in ESE. Binoculars will be helpful for spotting it, and possibly emerging Saturn, rising within 3° to Moon’s lower right.
  • Mon. Dec. 21–Saturn 6.2° N of Antares (minimum distance).
  • Wed. Dec. 23–Mars 3.6° N of Spica (minimum distance).
  • Thurs. Dec. 31–Moon 3° lower right of Jupiter.
  • Sun. Jan. 3–Mars 3° lower left, Spica 5° lower right, of Moon.
  • Wed. Jan. 6–Moon-Venus-Saturn, with Antares to lower right.
  • Thurs. Jan. 7–Venus-Saturn-Moon, with Venus 6.4° N of Antares (min. dist.) Venus within 6°, Saturn 9°, to lower left of Moon.
  • Fri. Jan. 8–Last old Moon. Venus about 0.7° upper right of Saturn.
  • Sat. Jan. 9 —Venus now 0.4° lower left of Saturn.
  • Sun. Jan. 10–Each day, Venus appears just over 1° farther E of Saturn.

Resources:
Illustrations of events mentioned above appear in Sky Calendar. For a sample issue and how to subscribe, visit www.abramsplanetarium.org/skycalendar/

An activity, Modeling seasonal visibility of stars and visibility of the planets, to help students investigate visibility of bright planets and first magnitude stars, is available at the CSTA website. As stars and planets come and go in morning and evening skies and display beautiful pairings and groupings, students can model these changes and explain their observations with the aid of items provided: Two planet orbit charts, Mercury through Mars and Mercury through Saturn; a table of data for plotting planets on orbit charts (.docx file); and a sheet with questions on star and planet visibility in 2015-2016 (.docx).

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs.

 Robert D. Miller, who provided the twilight charts and the planet orbit charts, did graduate work in Planetarium Science and later astronomy and computer science at Michigan State University and remains active in research and public outreach in astronomy.

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.

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