Southern Sky News for December 2010

posted: 2570 days ago, on Wednesday, 2010 Nov 10 at 12:09
tags: astronomy, outreach, almanack, Southern Sky News.

Special dates to diarize

December 01, before sunrise: crescent Moon, brilliant Venus and Saturn together

December 02, before sunrise: crescent Moon, brilliant Venus and Saturn together. Spica (in Virgo) close below the Moon

December 03, before sunrise: crescent Moon, brilliant Venus and Saturn together

December 05 New Moon

December 08, sunset: Look for the thin lunar crescent this evening. Can you spot Mercury?

December 09, sunset: crescent Moon in the west

December 10, sunset: crescent Moon in the west

December 11, sunset: crescent Moon in the west

December 12, sunset, crescent Moon in the west

December 13 Half-full Moon tonight, with Jupiter directly above it.

December 18, sunset: Brilliant Moon tonight next to Seven Sisters star cluster.

December 21, sunset: Watch the Full Moon rising and take a dramatic photo

December 28, before sunrise: crescent Moon, brilliant Venus and Saturn together

December 29, before sunrise: crescent Moon, brilliant Venus and Saturn together

December 30, before sunrise: crescent Moon, brilliant Venus and Saturn together

December 31, before sunrise: crescent Moon, brilliant Venus and Saturn together

Planets in brief

The beautiful planet Jupiter graces the evening skies this December. In the morning before sunrise, brilliant Venus plays the role of Morning Star, accompanied by Saturn.

Early evening skies in December

Soon after sunset, look in the west, near the horizon, for a bright star. This is actually the planet Mercury a rarely seen sight since this little planet is usually too near the Sun to be easily visible. You'll only be able to see Mercury during the first week of December, so make a point to seek it out.

Now turn to the south. Hard to see near the horizon is the Southern Cross and the two bright Pointer stars.

If you look to the east (opposite to where the Sun has just set) you will see, low down, a dazzling brightly and colourfully sparkling star. This is Sirius, the famous Dog Star. To the left of Sirius notice three prominent stars in a row: the bright Belt of Orion. Further left is a prominent orange-coloured star (Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the Bull) and still further left (in other words, facing north-east) the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) can be seen as a little fuzzy patch. With good eyesight, you can make out that this patch is actually composed of stars tightly packed together. In binoculars, it is a glorious object.

However, the easiest object to spot this month is the massive planet Jupiter. It is the brightest "star" in the evening sky this month and is visible high in the north-west after sunset. Take a close look at it through binoculars: you will be able to see between one and four tiny stars close to the planet. These are actually Jupiter's moons! From night to night, you can watch these moons change position as they orbit around Jupiter. Not too long after midnight, however, Jupiter will have set, so watch it early each evening.

Stars around midnight

By midnight, brilliant Sirius accompanied by Orion and Taurus the Bull are high up in the sky over the north-eastern horizon. Jupiter is the very bright "star" low in the west (by the end of the month it will set at midnight). To the south, the Southern Cross has now risen, with the two Pointers below and to the right. Reaching up from the Southern Cross and stretching up to Orion and beyond you can now see the beautiful Milky Way. Use binoculars to slowly scan this part of the sky and you will discover dozens of splendid star clusters and gas clouds; these form the major building blocks of our galaxy.

Early morning skies

Shortly before daybreak the impressively bright Venus rises, as the majestic Morning Star. It's impossible to miss it, shining boldly in the east every morning this month.

A short distance above and left of Venus is an obvious star this is Spica, the main star of the constellation Virgo. And to the left of this star is another, similarly-bright star but this is actually the glorious planet Saturn. Through a telescope its magnificent ring system is a delight to see. Throughout the course of the month you'll notice how Venus rapidly changes its position: by the end of the month, Venus will be quite a lot further away from Saturn and Spica.

To the west, Orion is low on the horizon and setting, with Sirius shining brightly above it.

The Moon

The Moon is new on December 5 and Full on December 21.

On Wednesday evening the 8th, the Moon returns to the evening sky. Look for the thin crescent low in the west. You may still be able to spot Mercury, too, further down and to the left. Watch over the next few evenings as the crescent becomes slightly larger, and sits higher in the sky, each evening. By December 13, the Moon will be half-full, and Jupiter shines brightly directly above it. On the 18th the Moon, now brilliant at sunset, lies next to the Seven Sisters star cluster. Make a point to watch the Full Moon rising on Tuesday evening, December 21. This is a great opportunity to take a dramatic photograph.

For three mornings before sunrise (Dec 01 to 03) the slender Moon will join Saturn and Venus in the pre-dawn sky. On December 02, the Moon will be between Saturn and Venus, and directly above the star Spica (in Virgo). The crescent Moon will again be in the morning sky on the last days of the year; from December 28 onward the Moon will be near Saturn and Venus before sunrise.

One day, long ago

A special astronomical anniversary is celebrated on December 17: it was on this day, in 1652, that the first comet was recorded from South Africa, by none other than Jan van Riebeeck.


Happy star-gazing!


For more details

Southern Sky Almanack (2010).

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