March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Celestial Highlights for December: Venus at its best before its January departure from evening sky.

Posted: Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

Source: Abrams Planetarium A 1-year subscription to the Abrams Sky Calendar consists of 4 quarterly mailings of three calendars each. The quarters begin with February, May, August, and November issues. Cost: $11. http://www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/SkyCalendar/Index.html

Source: Abrams Planetarium
A 1-year subscription to the Abrams Sky Calendar consists of 4 quarterly mailings of three calendars each. The quarters begin with February, May, August, and November issues. Cost: $11.
http://www.pa.msu.edu/
abrams/SkyCalendar/
Index.html

by Robert Victor and Robert D. Miller 

Our evening twilight map for December  depicts the sky about 44 minutes after sunset from southern California and 48 minutes after sunset from the northern reaches of the state. In early December, we find Venus near its brightest and highest, in the southwest; the Summer Triangle of Vega-Altair-Deneb, high in the west; and Fomalhaut, mouth of the Southern Fish, just east of due south. As December opens, the only bright objects in the eastern sky in mid-twilight are Capella the Mother Goat star in the northeast, and Aldebaran, eye of Taurus, very low in ENE. Wait a few minutes to allow the evening sky to darken a bit, and you’ll notice the compact Pleiades or Seven Sisters cluster 14° above Aldebaran. The scene is beautifully described in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Locksley Hall: “Many a night I saw the Pleiades/rising thro’ the mellow shade/glittering like a swarm of fireflies/tangled in a silver braid.” Don’t miss the view of the Pleiades through binoculars!

By month’s end Venus is much lower in WSW, because it’s heading toward inferior conjunction on Jan. 11. The Summer Triangle is lower too, and Fomalhaut has crossed to west of south, both changes owing to Earth’s revolution around the Sun. Betelgeuse and Rigel, the brighter shoulder and foot of Orion, the Hunter, appear above the eastern horizon 4 minutes earlier each evening. Between them lies a vertical line of three stars – Orion’s belt! Poet Robert Frost in The Star Splitter (telling about a farmer who set fire to his house to collect insurance money to buy a telescope – to split stars!) describes what you can observe at this time of year: “You know Orion always comes up sideways/throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains…”

Do not miss Venus near the crescent Moon early on Thursday evening, December 5. It’s also a great chance to spot Venus in the daytime, about 7° from the Moon all afternoon. In fact, if you know when and where to look, you can find Venus in

Source: Abrams Planetarium A 1-year subscription to the Abrams Sky Calendar consists of 4 quarterly mailings of three calendars each. The quarters begin with February, May, August, and November issues. Cost: $11. http://www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/SkyCalendar/Index.html

Source: Abrams Planetarium
A 1-year subscription to the Abrams Sky Calendar consists of 4 quarterly mailings of three calendars each. The quarters begin with February, May, August, and November issues. Cost: $11.
http://www.pa.msu.edu/
abrams/SkyCalendar/
Index.html

broad daylight on any clear day this month. First aim your binoculars at a distant horizon feature, and focus. Next, point toward Venus, sweep until you find it, and observe its current crescent phase, which will get thinner and larger in size as this month progresses! Take care that you do not aim binoculars at the Sun.

An easier time to spot Venus in the daytime is just before sunset. By observing in the daytime or at sunset you avoid the glare of Venus against a darkened sky, and you’ll find the planet’s crescent phase easy to resolve even with the low magnification of binoculars. Take advantage of the opportunity to have your students observe the crescent Venus with telescope or binoculars in the weeks before and after its inferior conjunction with the Sun on Jan. 11, 2014. These opportunities come at intervals of just over 19 months, surrounding Venus’ passage between Earth and Sun. Your next chance will come during the summer months of 2015, surrounding the inferior conjunction of Venus in August of that year.

Our morning twilight map shows the sky about 3/4 hour before sunup. On Sunday, December 1, five solar system bodies are easily visible. From west to east, they are Jupiter, about halfway from horizon to overhead in west; Mars, even higher in SSE; and a clustering of Saturn, the old crescent Moon, and Mercury low in ESE. The Moon isn’t plotted on our all-sky chart, but the attractive gathering is pictured on a separate diagram from the Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar. From California, Saturn is 4° above the thin Moon, and Mercury appears within 4° to Moon’s lower left. There’s less than 35 hours until the invisible New Moon (on Dec. 2 at 4:22 p.m. PST), so the Moon will be gone by Monday morning. Mercury drops out of sight in December’s second week, on its way to the far side of the Sun on Dec. 28.

Source: Abrams Planetarium A 1-year subscription to the Abrams Sky Calendar consists of 4 quarterly mailings of three calendars each. The quarters begin with February, May, August, and November issues. Cost: $11. http://www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/SkyCalendar/Index.html

Source: Abrams Planetarium
A 1-year subscription to the Abrams Sky Calendar consists of 4 quarterly mailings of three calendars each. The quarters begin with February, May, August, and November issues. Cost: $11.
http://www.pa.msu.edu/
abrams/SkyCalendar/
Index.html

The two brightest objects in our morning sky are steady Jupiter sinking in W toward WNW, and twinkling Sirius, until it sets in WSW. On Dec. 1 our Spaceship Earth is heading in the direction 10° east (left) of Regulus. As Earth curves around the Sun in the next five months, it will overtake the slower-moving outer planets: Jupiter in early January, Mars in early April, and Saturn before the middle of May. As a result, these planets, along with their background stars, will progress toward the western horizon in our morning sky, and will appear above our eastern horizon in the early evening sky. Morning and evening twilight charts for each month through the end of 2014 and exercises to help students understand and enjoy the changing visibility of planets and stars, are available at www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/msta/

On Dec. 2, Mars appears midway between Regulus and Spica, 27° from each. By Dec. 29, Mars has moved 3/4 of the way toward Spica, enroute to passing that star in early February, in the opening event of their triple conjunction.

Source: Abrams Planetarium A 1-year subscription to the Abrams Sky Calendar consists of 4 quarterly mailings of three calendars each. The quarters begin with February, May, August, and November issues. Cost: $11. http://www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/SkyCalendar/Index.html

Source: Abrams Planetarium
A 1-year subscription to the Abrams Sky Calendar consists of 4 quarterly mailings of three calendars each. The quarters begin with February, May, August, and November issues. Cost: $11.
http://www.pa.msu.edu/
abrams/SkyCalendar/
Index.html

The Moon returns to the morning sky after mid-December. On the 17th, the Full Moon sets around sunrise. If you enjoy chasing very thin crescent Moons in twilight, there’ll be three chances in coming weeks, in addition to the gathering of the old Moon with two planets on Sun. Dec. 1: (1) A young crescent on the evening of Tues. Dec. 3, age 25 hours, very low in WSW 28° lower right of Venus; (2) A very old crescent on the morning of Tues. Dec. 31, 21 hours before New, very low in ESE 20° lower left of Antares; and (3) An challenging, extremely young crescent in the very early evening on Wed. Jan. 1, age 14 hours, within 8° lower right of Venus.

This year’s display of the Geminid meteor shower is largely spoiled by bright moonlight. Best viewing with least moonlight will occur in predawn hours this year, on Fri. Dec. 13 in the two hours between moonset and the onset of dawn twilight, and on Sat. Dec. 14 in the hour between moonset and twilight.

Source: Abrams Planetarium A 1-year subscription to the Abrams Sky Calendar consists of 4 quarterly mailings of three calendars each. The quarters begin with February, May, August, and November issues. Cost: $11. http://www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/SkyCalendar/Index.html

Source: Abrams Planetarium
A 1-year subscription to the Abrams Sky Calendar consists of 4 quarterly mailings of three calendars each. The quarters begin with February, May, August, and November issues. Cost: $11.
http://www.pa.msu.edu/
abrams/SkyCalendar/
Index.html

Comet ISON passed within 725,000 miles of the Sun’s surface on Thanksgiving Day and made a sharp turn to the north, or upper left of the predawn Sun. By Dec. 6 it will rise just south of east as morning twilight begins. Using binoculars about 1-1/4 hours before sunrise, look 21° lower left of Saturn for a pair of 3rd-mag. stars Delta Ophiuchi 1.4° above Epsilon. On Dec. 6, Comet ISON is just above Delta, and on following mornings it moves 2° farther to the north (upper left) of that star daily. By Dec. 18-19, the comet shifts northward 3° per day, peaking at 3.7° at closest approach to Earth, 40 million miles, on Dec. 26. But by then, if not much sooner, the comet may have faded to well below naked-eye visibility. Visit www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/ison/ for updates on the comet and links to more info.

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, 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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