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What’s up in the sky: Astronomy for December

By David L. Richards
Special to the Beacon Journal

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On the morning of Dec. 2, if you are up at 6:30 a.m. and it’s clear out, look to the east. You’ll see Saturn shining brightly in Libra, with a sliver of the waning crescent moon only 2 degrees below, and about 5 degrees below the moon lies Mercury.

This will be quite a sight by itself, but if we are lucky, the tail of Comet ISON will be sweeping up into the dawn sky. Or not.

This already famous comet will make its extremely close pass of 727,000 miles from the sun’s surface on Thanksgiving Day. If it survives this encounter, we may see the comet shining as bright as Venus, between magnitudes -3 and -5. At this writing, no one can predict the outcome; I really hope we will be pleasantly surprised. The accompanying illustration shows you where to look for it as the month progresses.

As long as you are out, notice Jupiter at magnitude -2.4 in Gemini. The giant will set around 10:30 a.m. Mars rises right in the east at 1:25 a.m. on Dec. 1, moving through the constellation Virgo in December. Mars is as bright now as Antares in Scorpius, the 16th brightest star in the heavens. Mars is often confused with Antares, thus the name: ant-, “against” in Greek, and -ares, the Greek form of Mars.

Venus is at its brightest this month as the “evening star” in Sagittarius, low in the southwest at dusk. On the evening of Dec. 18, the waning gibbous moon joins Jupiter.

On the evening of Dec. 10, the waxing gibbous moon is within 3 degrees of Uranus, which is right at the threshold of good unaided night vision. In 7 x 50 binoculars, the moon will be at two o’clock and Uranus will be the pale green spot in the center of the field.

Dec. 21 marks the winter solstice, where the sun appears to have reached its lowest altitude in the sky above the horizon.

Two meteor showers take place in December. The Ursids are a minor shower occurring on the morning of Dec. 22. The Geminids on Dec. 14 are one of only two major showers originating from an asteroid, as opposed to a comet. As many as 160 meteors an hour have been spotted in the early morning hours.

Q&A

Q: I know that we count eight planets now, but how many dwarf planets exist? — R.M., Canton

A: Since 2006 when the International Astronomical Union decided that Pluto should be classified as a dwarf planet (or Kuiper Belt Object or Plutoid, take your pick), it has been estimated that there may be hundreds or even thousands of dwarf planets in the solar system.

Fortunately for school students, we currently identify only four more: Ceres, an ex-asteroid; Eris, Haumea and Makemake. Notice the last two names diverge from the tradition of naming celestial objects after Greek or Shakespearian characters. We now have a multicultural sky, as Haumea is the maternal goddess of the island of Hawaii, and Makemake is the creator in Rapa Nui mythology on Easter Island, where those enormous mystifying stone statues gaze out on the Pacific Ocean.

Night sky program

Through Dec. 31, the Hoover-Price Planetarium is presenting Celestial Light. The West’s traditional view of the heavens has been greatly influenced by Greek mythology and tradition. We will be looking at how other cultures across the planet see the night sky.

The program will be shown at 1 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. The planetarium is included with admission to the McKinley Presidential Library & Museum.

David L. Richards is director of the Hoover-Price Planetarium at the McKinley Presidential Library and Museum, 800 McKinley Monument Drive NW, Canton, 44708, www.mckinleymuseum.org. He can be reached at 330-455-7043 or email hooverpriceplanetarium@hotmail.com.


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