What’s Up in the Sky – December, 2016
December’s Sky Has Much to Offer
December can be a frustrating month for observing due to its notoriously bad weather, but the legends and lore associated with those hidden sky wonders can add wonder to the season.
Venus is currently doing a good job posing as the Christmas Star albeit in the wrong direction. She, along with two of her companions, Mercury and Mars, can be found all lined up above the southwest horizon after sunset.
Venus is by far the brightest and most easily visible of the three and, in early December, is almost exactly half way in between the others, about twenty degrees (two fists held at arm’s length) from each one. Mercury is to the lower right of Venus, near the southwest horizon, and is rather dim so binoculars or a small telescope will probably be needed to spot it. Mars is to the upper left of Venus and should be easy to see high above the southern horizon.
This week you can also let the crescent Moon be your guide. Keeping in mind the need for a clear horizon and optical aid (binoculars), go out tomorrow around 5:30 p.m. and look for a thin crescent Moon near the southwestern horizon. Mercury will be to its left and even closer to the horizon but on Thursday it will be right below the Moon and both should be a little easier to find.
The following nights the Moon will pass Venus and then, on Sunday, December 4, now approaching first quarter, will be just to the right (west) of Mars. As the month progresses, the Venus-Mars separation will shrink considerably as the two approach a late January close encounter.
You early birds should not feel left out since you have Jupiter dominating the pre dawn sky high in the south. It will be joined by a waning crescent Moon on December 22.
If the weather does not allow these observations, we can always remember the connection between celestial objects and the celebrations of the seasons. Many cultures over the centuries have had stories and legends about this time of year, most concerned with the return of the Sun after the winter solstice. All autumn the Sun sets at a point farther south on the horizon as the days get colder and shorter. Early people were concerned about its return.
Many of our traditions involve the theme of light and have their origins in early rituals meant to coax the Sun back.
The Norsemen of northern Europe used to honor the Sun with a feast called Yule, during which logs of oak were burned. We are still familiar with the Yule log. Candles in windows and luminarias on paths are meant to light the way for Mary and Joseph. Wreaths of holly, with its red berries, were originally used to represent the Sun, and evergreens, with their permanent foliage, were considered symbols of eternal life and assurance of the Sun’s return.
So get out and enjoy the symbols of the Holiday Season that can be found up in the sky.
This month in history:
Dec. 3: Pioneer 10 spacecraft makes closest approach to Jupiter – 1973
Dec. 7: Gerard Kuiper born – 1905
Dec. 14: Gene Cernan, Apollo 17 astronaut, is last human to walk on Moon – 1972
Dec. 20: Founding of Mt. Wilson Solar Observatory – 1904
Dec. 24: Apollo 8 astronauts give us inspirational moment from lunar orbit – 1968
Dec. 25: Isaac Newton born – 1642