'Tis the Season for Jolly Starwatching'
I love December stargazing. There's magic in the air this holiday season and there's also magic in the heavens, as these long nights are blessed with some of the best constellations of the year. Bundle up, get out that comfy reclining lawn chair, brush away the snow if you have to, and enjoy the cold clear night delights. Letthe neighbors watching from a distance think you're a little nuts lounging in lawn chairs gazing skyward, but they're missing out on a great show! Why don't you invite them to join you? There's more to evening entertainment than what you can see on a screen! Keep thehot coffee or chocolate, or my favorite, hot apple cider handy to keep your insides warm and enjoy these special starlit nights.
Another thing I love about December star watching is that you can get an early start. By 6pm it's plenty dark enough, however around December 6th we'll have a high riding bright full moon blasting the sky with its reflected sunlight. Right around December 10th or 11th, when the moon rises later in the eveningand isn't so full, true evening stargazing can resume.
Even before the end of evening this month you might see the planet Mars in the low southwest sky. It will have a reddish tinge to it, but it's so close to the horizon that it's pretty much below the horizon by around 7:00pm. Forget about looking at it with a telescope. About all you'll see is a fuzzy dot. It's too far away and too close to the blurring effects of the air close to the horizon.The planet Jupiter is still is getting ready to put on a great show early next year, but for now we won't see it until it rises above the eastern horizon after 11pm.
Despite the pre-winter chill there are still signs of summer in the early evening western sky, where you can see the "Summer Triangle" of stars; Vega, Altair, and Deneb, the brightest stars in their respective constellations. Deneb, a star at least 1500 light-years away, is the brightest star in the constellation Cygnus the Swan, otherwise known by its nickname the Northern Cross. During the holiday season the cross is standing nearly upright above the northwestern horizon. This is the last call for the Northern Cross and the Summer Triangle, because next month the night side of the Earth will turn away from that part of space.
The great horse Pegasus is riding high in the south-southwestern sky with Cassiopeia the Queen, the one that looks like a bright "W" in the high northern sky. The Big Dipper is still very low in the northern sky, but you'll notice that from night to night it will gradually get higher, standing diagonally on its handle. The Little Dipper is hanging by its handle above the Big Dipper, with Polaris the North Star at the end of its handle. Because Polaris is shining directly above Earth's North Pole, it appears that all of the stars in the sky revolve around Polaris once every 24 hours, including our sun.
The later you stay up in the evening the more you'll see of the best part of December skies rising in the east. By 8 to 9pm you'll easily see Orion the Hunter, that wonderful winter constellation, rising in the east. Its calling card is the three bright stars in a row that make up Orion's belt. Preceding Orion are the bright autumn constellations Taurus the Bull, with the wonderful Pleiades starcluster, and Auriga, the constellation that looks like a lopsided pentagon with the bright star Capella. Auriga's supposed to be a retired chariot driver turned goat farmer. Just to the north of Orion is the constellation Gemini the Twins, with the bright stars Castor and Pollux in position on the forehead of the Twins. I call this part of the sky "Orion and his gang".
On the night of December 13-14th the Geminid meteor shower peaks. On that night there will be a last quarter (half) moon that will white out at least some of the meteors, but the Geminids are so bright and numerous that it should still be a half way decent shooting star show. I'll have more on the Geminids next week in Skywatch.