D E C E M B E R 2 0 0 2 S K Y W A T C H
by Maya del Mar
Saturn is the Star of the Month.
Auriga, the Pleiades, Taurus, Orion, the Twins, and Siriusthat great grouping of winter starsare now all rising around sunset. We can watch them slowly climb out of the dusky twilight and brighten as they rise up into the darkness. Wait! What is that bright golden object in the middle of this majestic gathering?
It is our old friend, Saturn, now very bright for a few reasons. First, its rings are maximally tilted towards us. In 1995 they were edgewise, and nearly impossible to see. Since then, they have been tipping towards us. The rings now nearly triple Saturns brilliance.
Secondly, Saturn is traveling high in the northern sky. Its at its most elevated position since 1975. It is up above the horizon for 15 hours/day.
Thirdly, when Sun has its opposition with Saturn on December 17, Saturn and Earth will have their nearest meeting in 27 years.
This great observing season will run until early spring. Early next December Saturn will reappear again, under perfect circumstances. After that, it will be almost 30 years until Saturn gives us such another good show.
Make yourself an opportunity to see Saturn through a telescope this winter.
Now and during the winter, Saturn will be in the latter part of Gemini, close to the U.S. Mars. In December 2003 it will be in Cancer, close to the U.S. Sun. It is apt to bring increased authority to the U.S. during 2003.
Check the near-full Moon on the nights of December 18 and 19. It passes close to Saturn on both nights. You might have to peer hard through the Moons brightness to see Saturn.
Saturn, Jupiter, Mars and Venus grace the morning sky.
Jupiter rises a couple of hours after Saturn. Jupiter is brilliant, the brightest body in the sky. Its high in the sky in the very early morning, beaming its radiance over us. Its considerably below the Gemini Twins, Castor and Pollux, and above Leos brightest star, Regulus. Its getting brighter now, and will continue to do so until its opposition to Sun in February.
Planets in solar opposition rise in the East, as the Sun sets in the West, just like a Full Moon. And like Full Moon, at midnight they are high and bright above us.
Venus, the jewel of the heavens, and much duller Mars now conjoin in the morning sky. Although we dont see it, asteroid Juno is with them. On December 1 at 6:00 a.m local time, we can see Mars and Venus with the cradle of the old crescent moon. (Look for earth shadow.)
A bit to the right of this trio is bright blue Spica, Virgos Harvest Queen. Higher and to the left is bright yellow Arcturus, the Shepherd.
Mercury is an evening star this month. As usual, its difficult to see, but it does get more apparent as the month moves on. Start hunting just after sunset, with a good view of the western horizon. A help is that there are no bright stars around, so if you see something, its Mercury. Binoculars will help.
The long nights of winter are really helpful in sky watching, so take advantage of them!
Note: This column speaks from the point of view of the Northern Hemisphere. Does some reader want to write a Skywatch for the Southern Hemisphere?