Skywatch: giant planets and winter stars

This year’s winter solstice, which marks the first day of winter, occurs on Dec. 21 at 10:27 p.m.

Nighttime darkness is at its greatest this time of year, and we can begin to look for night sky sights at an earlier time.

The December full moon is on the 26th, the day after Christmas.

The Geminid meteor shower peaks on Dec. 14.

The meteor shower appears to come from the sky where we see the zodiac constellation Gemini, which is well up in the eastern sky by 9 p.m.

Rates of meteors will increase as we move toward midnight.

One hundred meteors per hour may be counted just after midnight and up to 50 per hour in the time before and after midnight. This is about as good as it gets for meteor watchers, so take some time to scan the eastern sky from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. And, dress warmly.

The gas giant planets take most attention for us all month and both of them, Jupiter and Saturn, are easy to find.

Saturn is high up in the southern sky by nightfall and best seen from then until it sets around 9 p.m. at the end of December.

On Dec. 17, look for a nice crescent moon just below Saturn. If you have a telescope, get out and catch its beautiful rings.

Jupiter will be visible almost all night. It will be well up in the eastern sky as soon as it gets fully dark and will be the brightest object there.

Through a telescope its disk will be seen with its colored bands of clouds across its surface. Watch over several minutes as our atmosphere steadies and more detail is revealed.

Binoculars will allow skywatchers to see Jupiter’s four largest moons and how they appear to change position over time, and from night to night as they orbit the giant planet.

Telescopic views of both of these planets are never disappointing.

On the nights before and after Christmas, look just above the horizon in the north-western sky. You will see Cygnus the swan, actually a summer constellation that still lingers there, with its head tucked into the horizon.

Cygnus’ alternate name is the Northern Cross, and indeed it looks like a big Christian cross.

I always think it is interesting to see this on the nights close to when we celebrate the birth of Christ, who came and ultimately died as our savior on a cross.

The beautiful group of bright winter constellations are rising proudly in the east now and gaining altitude with each passing night. By January, they will all be placed in the sky directly south.

The best known is Orion the hunter with its big hourglass shape and three equally bright stars forming a belt at his waist.

Above and to Orion’s right as we look at him is Taurus the bull with its V-shaped head, and the Pleiades star cluster just to its right.

Below and left of Orion is the brightest star we see from Earth, Sirius, in Canis Major, the larger of Orion’s two hunting dogs.

Gemini the twins is spread away and left of Orion’s left arm (as we look at him). Very near the zenith (top of the sky) is a large five-sided constellation called Auriga, with another very bright star called Capella.

Within these bright winter constellations we can county eight of the 20 brightest stars we can see from Earth. It is a real holiday treat.

In the first two weeks of December, Mercury makes a brief appearance, but we will need a clear view to the southwest horizon to find it. And it sets only 45 minutes after sunset. Use binoculars to find it as twilight ends.

Our annual planetarium Christmas program will be at Kent County High School at 7 p.m. on Dec. 14, Dec. 15, Dec. 18, Dec. 19 and Dec. 20. This is the 37th edition of the show, and it is all new once again. There is no admission fee. Refreshments will be available.

To all my faithful skywatcher friends and readers: Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year under the stars.

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One Response

  1. Dennis, I have been following your postings for many, many years and have been enjoying each and every one. Thank you!

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