Pictured is Jupiter’s Great Red Spot and turbulent southern hemisphere, captured by NASA’s Juno spacecraft February 12, 2019. Citizen scientist Kevin M. Gill created this image using data from the spacecraft's JunoCam imager. Jupiter is viewable from Muskegon this month, visually close to both Venus and Saturn. Photo courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill.
Starry December Nights for Star Gazers
BY JONATHAN TRUAX, ASTRONOMER, MUSKEGON COMMUNITY COLLEGE'S CARR-FLES PLANETARIUM
The brilliant starry nights in December seem to mirror the lights that adorn our holiday decorations.
December skies 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 a meteor shower and four naked eye planets.
As the month begins, three planets are visible in the evening sky with two very close together. About 30 minutes after sunset, look very low in the southwest near the horizon for planet Jupiter. The planet appears as a bright white “star” barely above the horizon.
Venus is higher, brighter, and easier to see. Even higher and further to the east of Venus is dimmer Saturn. On December 10, Venus will pass Saturn and become the eastern most planet of the trio. Locate the waxing crescent moon just south of Venus on the evening of the 28th .
Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 p.m. through December 12, 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.
Sky watchers can locate the planet Mars in the south southeast about and hour before sunrise. Look for a fairly bright orange-red “star.” Another red star known as Antares of Scorpius the Scorpion, can be see lower and closer to the southeastern horizon. The waning crescent moon will be very near Mars the mornings of December 22 and 23.
The Full moon this month is the Yule Moon occurring on the night of the 12th. 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.
The Geminid meteor shower reaches peak activity the evening of December 13 and the morning of the 14. During this year’s shower, moonlight will create a problem seeing the fainter meteors since the moon is only two days past Full. 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 10th. 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 “Mystery of the Christmas Star” Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., through December 12, 2019. 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 Carr-Fles Planetarium with state-of-the-art digital projection, sound and lighting systems; all-new library of shows; and modern theater seating and domed ceiling.