The Stars are Bright on Clear Nights in December
BY JONATHAN TRUAX, ASTRONOMER, MUSKEGON COMMUNITY COLLEGE'S CARR-FLES PLANETARIUM
The stars of winter nights in December seem to mirror the lights that adorn our holiday decorations.
Nights in December are frequently cloudy here in Michigan, yet the clear nights offer a chance to enjoy the some of the brightest stars of the year. Sky watchers will also have opportunities to enjoy three naked eye planets.
As the month begins, three planets are visible in the morning sky and very close together. About 40 minutes before sunrise look very low in the southeast near the horizon for planet Venus. The planet appears as a bright white “star” barely above the horizon. Brilliant Jupiter is higher and easier to see. Even higher and further to the west of Jupiter is orange colored Mars. The waning crescent moon will be very near Jupiter and Mars the mornings of December 13 and 14 aiding in their identification.
Sky watchers can locate the planet Mars in the south southwest about an hour after sunset. Look for a bright orange-red “star” among the stars of Aquarius. The waxing moon is near Mars on the nights of December 5 and 6.
Tuesday and Thursday at 7:00 p.m. through December 14, the MCC Carr-Fles Planetarium presents Mystery of the Christmas Star, which investigates possible dates for the sighting of the “star,” and looks at significant astronomical events visible in the sky in those time frames. See which of the “sky signs” was remarkable enough to have caused the Wise Men to travel over 600 miles through the desert from Babylon to Bethlehem. The program will be followed by a brief tour of the current night sky, using the planetarium.
The Full moon this month is the Yule Moon occurring on the night of the 3rd. This month’s Full moon is as far to the north in the sky as possible, of any Full moon this year. The moon thus takes a long path across the sky being visible for longer than 12 hours. December’s Full moon is also the largest and closest Full moon of 2017. For certain parts of the Earth this night’s moon will pass in front of the bright red-orange star Aldebaran of Taurus, but here in Michigan the moon will just be very near the star all night.
The Geminid meteor shower reaches peak activity the evening of December 13 and the morning of the 14th. This year moonlight will be no problem, since the moon is a thin crescent. Sky watchers can expect to see 40 meteors per hour or more radiating from the constellation of Gemini if the night sky is clear. Meteors will be seen all over the sky but their paths will trace back to Gemini.
As darkness falls after sunset during December, the “Summer Triangle” made of the three bright stars Vega, Altair, and Deneb is low in the west.
Looking low on the north horizon, locate the “Big Dipper” formed by the stars of Ursa Major. High in the north, locate the “W” formed by the stars of Cassiopeia. High in the northeast, locate the bright, yellow star Capella of Auriga, the charioteer.
The winter constellation of Taurus can be seen rising low on the east horizon. Look for the Pleiades star cluster, seen as a tiny “dipper” of stars, high in the east. The waxing gibbous moon will be very close to the cluster on the night of the 29th. Sky watchers can watch Orion rise low in the east about two hours after sunset. Look for three stars in a row, the famous “belt” of Orion.
The MCC Carr-Fles Planetarium presents free of charge “The Mystery of the Christmas Star” Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., through December 14. Visit the MCC Carr-Fles Planetarium website for upcoming events and call (231) 777-0289 for sky show information. Carr-Fles Planetarium is located on the Muskegon Community College campus in Room 135. Thanks to the generosity of the Reach for the Stars campaign donors, you can now experience the all-new Carr-Fles Planetarium, featuring state-of-the-art digital projection, sound and lighting systems; all-new library of shows; and modern theater seating and domed ceiling.