Dec 03

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – December, 2020

Planets Put on a Great Show
Although I often write about things that end up being hidden by clouds, this month offers a very good chance to witness a very rare sight.

If your gaze has drifted toward the southwestern evening sky lately, you have hopefully noticed the scene I described at the end of last month’s column, Jupiter shining brightly with faint Saturn to its upper left. Since Jupiter is the brightest thing in the sky that’s not the Moon, you may have missed Saturn, which appears only one tenth as bright. Hold two fingers at arm’s length. That’s how far apart the two planets appear to be.

And that’s the key, their separation. They look pretty close now, but by December 21, they will be so close together that a pencil at arm’s length won’t fit between them. Their pairing is the closest since 1623 and until another in 2080. Unfortunately, no one saw the 1623 event because the Sun was in the way and in 2080 you’ll have to get up before sunrise to see them.

That’s another reason to make an effort to observe the two giants, you will probably never have another chance, although teenagers stand a chance of being able to say they saw it twice sixty years from now. So again, each clear day at six o’clock, check out the southwestern sky for the “stars” of the show.

For those with a small telescope or binoculars (preferably on a tripod) be sure to observe the planets as close to December 21 as possible. When the planets are at their closest, they should both be visible together in a single field of view in such devices. For those with a smart phone, zoom in on the scene to view it in real time. Take it all in and enjoy it because you probably will never have another opportunity.

In addition to that celestial show, this month also has a meteor shower to offer. The night of Sunday, December 13th could be called the night of the shooting stars for on that night you’ll have an opportunity to witness the most reliable, prolific, and brightest annual meteor shower, the Geminids (showers are named after the constellation from which they appear to streak).

Not long ago, August’s Perseids were considered the top shower. But over the past few decades, the Geminids have intensified and are now in first place. Their popularity is hampered by the lousy weather that usually accompanies them.

But if the 13th does turn out to be clear, find a dark spot facing east, bundle up more than you think is necessary, break out the summer recliner, take along a thermos and an extra blanket or insulated sleeping bag and enjoy what’s up in the sky.

This month in history:
Dec 3: Pioneer 10 spacecraft makes closest approach to Jupiter – 1973
Dec 4: Mars Pathfinder is launched – 1996
Dec 11: Annie Jump Cannon is born – 1863
Dec 14: Gene Cernan, Apollo 17 astronaut, is last human to walk on Moon – 1972
Dec 16: Last two Saturn V moon rockets donated to museums – 1976
Dec 24: Apollo 8 astronauts give us inspirational moment from lunar orbit – 1968
Dec 25: Isaac Newton born – 1642