December should be a great month for finding the planets, and one of the dwarf planets.
On Saturday, place Propus (the little toe of Castor in Gemini) in the center of the field of a pair of 7 x 50 binoculars. At the 1 o’clock position, you’ll see Ceres, the largest asteroid, now classed as a dwarf planet.
Jupiter will shine brightly, still near Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus. At 8 p.m., Saiph, the right knee of Orion, will be on the eastern horizon. On Christmas Day, the waxing gibbous moon and Jupiter will be less than 1 degree apart.
Mercury and Venus will be conspicuous in the dawn sky, and on Saturday, Mercury, Venus, Saturn and Spica (the brightest star in Virgo) will form a diagonal line across the southeast horizon. On the nights of Dec. 9-11, the sliver of the waning crescent moon will move through this lineup, beginning on Dec. 9 less than a degree from Spica, and ending up on Dec. 11 about a degree from Venus. By month’s end, Venus will remain visible as a “morning star.”
Mars will move through Sagittarius this month, and Saturday will be within 2½ degrees of Nunki, the second brightest star in the Archer. By month’s end, Mars will move into the constellation Capricornus, the Water Goat.
At 8 p.m. Dec. 2, place the waxing gibbous moon at 1 o’clock in your binoculars, and Uranus will be a pale green spot at 4 o’clock. Neptune will be found fairly easily at 8 p.m. Dec. 17. Place the waxing crescent moon at the 1 o’clock position in your binoculars, and Neptune will be a pale greenish-blue dot about 10 o’clock.
The Geminid meteor shower will peak at midnight Dec. 13, and will be quite regular in its timing. The meteor shower will appear to originate from Gemini. It is formed by bits of the debris trail from 3200 Phaethon, the rocky remains of a comet that lost most its mass after eons of close passes by the sun. A new moon that night will provide excellent views of the year’s last major meteor shower.
The winter solstice will be Dec. 21, and a minor meteor shower, the Ursids, will peak that night. A waxing moon will obscure good viewing until it sets about 1:30 a.m. Dec. 22, and might produce the greatest number of meteors between midnight and dawn of the next day. As many as 100 meteors per hour have been seen in short bursts, but usually five to 10 meteors an hour can be expected, appearing to radiate from the Little Dipper.
Q: What is a good, inexpensive telescope to buy for the kids for Christmas? — R.K., Akron
A: Using the words “good,” “inexpensive” and “telescope” in the same sentence is tricky. We get this question often so I am going to suggest a couple of websites that give a very good overview of the subject.
The Heretic’s Guide to Frequently Asked Questions About Telescopes at http://findascope.com/FAQ.html#child is fairly lengthy, but very comprehensive. Also, click on “Choosing Your first Telescope” at www.skyandtelescope.com/equipment/basics.
I have never used or seen one, but the Orion “FunScope” just might be the first and only good, inexpensive telescope, at least for kids about 12 or older. (Younger children tend not to be able to manage a telescope.) A product of the 2009 International Year of Astronomy, you can find this 3-inch Newtonian tabletop scope for $40.
It is equipped with a decent finder, an adequate eyepiece, and can be mounted on a tripod. Use a sturdy one, not the one you use for your camera. And, please, don’t just hand it to your child. Read the instructions, and learn a bit about the night sky so you don’t waste time and energy freezing in the dark trying to figure out how to proceed. Visit the planetarium, learn a bit about what’s up, and don’t hesitate to talk to the planetarium staff after a presentation.
The Hoover-Price Planetarium begins Solar Max on Jan. 2. The sun’s 11-year cycle will be at its high point. What will the Earth experience, and what problems may loom for human technology? Shows are at 1 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. The planetarium is included with admission to the McKinley Presidential Library & Museum. Call 330-455-7043 for more information.
David L. Richards is director of the Hoover-Price Planetarium at the McKinley Presidential Library and Museum, 800 McKinley Monument Drive NW, Canton, OH 44708, www.mckinleymuseum.org. He can be reached at 330-455-7043 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.