DECEMBER 2005 SKYWATCH
by Maya del Mar
I do like winter sky viewing. Here, along the California coast, skies are much more clear in the winter than they are in the summer (if its not raining, of course). In addition, winter nights stretch out longer, and there is more opportunity to really see the planets.
This month, at some time or other during the night, we can have the rare opportunity of seeing all of the inner planets. Even Neptune and Uranus are supposed to be bright enough to see with binoculars, low in the evening western sky, below bright Venus.
We can begin about 45 minutes after sunset, when Venus beams her brilliance in the southwest evening twilight. Venus is slowly moving towards her retrograde station. This means that she is coming closer and closer to earth (retrogrades bring us home to ourselves) and getting brighter and brighter. She hits her greatest brilliancy on December 9.
We have been seeing big, bright Mars high in the night sky. Ive heard someone say that it looked like a comet. Mars is getting lower and lower in the east, rising later, but it still rises high and bright in the southeast during the early evening. Mars is now past its peak, but it still appears bigger and brighter than it will at any time in the next 10 years. On December 9-10, Mars turns direct, and we can observe it now moving eastward.
Saturn, too, is rising later. However, wait until late evening when it is higher and can shine brighter through the clearer skies. Saturn is traveling retrograde, closing in on Earth, and it brightens during the month.
Jupiter rises before dawn, and is startling in its brilliance. It is the brightest object in the eastern sky. Above it is the bright blue star, Spica, which will be occulted by Moon on Christmas morning. Spica represents knowledge and insights. Will they be occulted?
And tiny Mercury makes its best appearance of the year in Decembers morning sky. It too is traveling very slowly, so we will have a chance to catch it. Mercury normally hangs out close to radiant Sun, but on December 12, Mercury rises two hours before the Sun. Try observing 30 minutes before sunrise, and look to the lower left of Jupiter. Below Mercury is the constellation Scorpius, with its reddish star, Antares. Mercury appears much brighter.
On December 4, we will get that lovely view of delicate New Moon with Venus, low in the western twilight.
The Geminid meteor shower reaches its peak the night of December 13-14. It is one of the years best, but Full Moon will interfere with good visibility. Still, watching for it in the early morning eastern sky can be rewarding. Try to block out the moonlight.