Heads UP! for December 2010

Sorry for being a few days late! But some of you saw the Moon and a very bright star early on Thursday morning – that bright star was Venus. The fainter star nearby was the star Spica and the next brightest star above them is the planet Saturn. Venus, Spica and Saturn will hang out in the pre-sunrise sky all month (see discussion below and a photo of Venus, Spica and Saturn in the previous post).

Total Eclipse
This month’s top attraction is when the Moon passes totally through the Earth’s shadow during the early morning of Tuesday the 21st, from 2:41 to 3:53am. Ok, that’s really early in the morning, but the eclipsed Moon reflects the light of the Sun bent through the Earth’s atmosphere, making a palette of shades of red on the face of the Moon. For about an hour before and after the start and end of the total eclipse, the edge of the Earth’s shadow crosses the Moon. Sometimes you’ll see a blue tinge on the edge of the shadow – our planet’s ozone layer. You don’t need a telescope for this event, but binoculars can increase the intensity of the colors. You could even view this event from a darkened room inside your home, if you have a view out the window to the southwest. It’s better to see this outside, where you can see the faint stars normally washed out by the full Moon. Don’t miss this rare event that can be seen anywhere in North America, but we won’t see again until 2014.

Jupiter
The main prime-time event this month is Jupiter, the bright star you’ll see right after sunset until the middle of the night. Steadily held binoculars will show its four brightest moons. In a telescope, if you can see one brownish band, you can watch this month to see if the second band redevelops, as there are signs that Jupiter’s second dark band is starting to return.

Venus and …
In the pre-sunrise sky, Venus attains a brilliance that other planets can only envy. Look out toward the brightening southeastern horizon and you’ll be startled by how bright Venus is, and how you can follow it right up until sunrise. Steadily held binoculars or a telescope will show that the planet looks like a tiny crescent moon. Ironically, the crescent phase is easier to see as the sky gets brighter.

The bright star near Venus is the 1st magnitude star Spica. The other bright star above Venus and Spica is the planet Saturn. A good quality telescope of any size at 50 power or more will show you a tiny ring around this faraway planet. Some people have seen the ring a 30x spotting scope. If you see a dot in the telescopic view of Saturn – that is Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. If you missed the lovely photo op of the Moon, Venus and Saturn, on the 1st and 2nd, watch from the 28th through the start of the New Year, when the planet Mercury also peeks over the horizon.

The Twins and the Hunter
The bright constellations Orion and Gemini rise sideways over the eastern horizon. What story can you tell, inspired by these stick figures? (My thoughts are in the Almanac column of the Westchester Astronomers’ Newsletter at http://www.westchesterastronomers.org/ )

Other Bright Sights…..
The sunrise shines down the cross-streets of Manhattan on the 5th. In our office, Henry has already noticed the first rays of morning sunlight extending further down the hallway. We’ll check it out when we return to work on Monday, the 6th.

The longest night is on the 21st, after the winter solstice at 6:38pm.

Geminid meteors shower us with the largest number of ‘falling stars’ on the night of the 13th – 14th. The number of meteors in this strong shower increase after 9pm, with the highest rate after midnight. It’s worth the bundling-up, since in a clear sky, you’ll easily see some bright meteors. Interestingly enough, these meteors are pieces leftover from an asteroid, not a comet, the usual source of meteor showers.

The International Space Station is another bright object we can see in our dawn skies through the 16th and in the dusk sky from the 23rd into the New Year. NASA is reviewing some repair work on the external tank used to hold the fuel for the Space Shuttle Discovery. Next available launch dates are from the 17th to the 20th.

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