For the first time in many months, ALL of the planets will be visible in December’s night sky. Venus and Mercury will begin the month deep in the Sun’s glare, but all the rest will start the month spread across the night sky. Naked-eye planets (that can be seen without the need of binoculars or a spotting scope) include Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn with fainter Neptune (just to the right of Jupiter) and Uranus (above and to the right of Mars) requiring some magnification. Because someone (yes, yours truly) lost track of the time last month, readers will be seeing this AstroCal in the December 7 edition of The Herald. With the paper now hitting the streets on Thursdays, this will be just in time to hear about the spectacular occultation of Mars and the Full Moon that will have taken place at 11:08 p.m. EST the day before this news is released. As Maxwell Smart used to say, “Missed it by THAT much!”
Fear not, when an event like this gets ‘clouded out’ in our area (a frequent occurrence on the shores of Lake Superior), I resort to the numerous clips that will spring up on the internet in the days that follow. More event tips for planet watchers and a Uranus finder chart can be found on the Sky Calendar extra content page at abramnsplanetarium.org/msta/ .
With the Full Moon mentioned above taking place on December 7, the rest of the Lunar Cycle will include the Last Quarter Moon on Dec 16 with the new cycle beginning with the Dec 23 New Moon. On Saturday Dec 24, the very slim Young Crescent Moon will appear low in the SW sky along with Mercury and Venus. Between Dec 26 and Jan 3, the Moon will pass all the other planets as it moves from the First Quarter on Dec 29 to the first Full Moon of 2023 on January 6.
Note the location of the Sun 38 minutes before sunset on Dec 8. Look to the same location 30 minutes later, you will be able to see Venus in that same spot as it will follow the Sun to the horizon. Mercury will be just above Venus and the Crescent Moon will be slightly to the left of the two planets. Mercury and Venus will have a close encounter on Dec 28 but the Winged Messanger will fade quickly after that. Venus, on the other hand, will hang around until July 2023 and future AstroCals will chronicle its pairings with other planets, stars, and a concluding display of crescent phases before it moves from our view in the evening skies.
Our viewing challenge for the month happens early on Dec 8 when binoculars will be needed to find Mercury and Venus low in the SW sky 30 minutes after sunset. They will climb higher during the month and be easier to spot. If one can find an unobstructed view, it may be possible to see Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Mars, and the Moon all at the same time. This simultaneous view would take in a whopping 177 degree span of the sky (remember – a closed fist held at arms length equals about 10 degrees, a ‘Texas hook’em horns’ with index finger and pinky extended equals about 15 degrees, and the old surfers greeting of thumb and pinky extended marks about 25 degrees when measuring the angular distance between objects in the sky).
Anything else of note happening in December? We can not forget the Winter Solstice marking the official beginning of Winter at 4:48 p.m. on Dec 21. At this time, the Sun’s vertical ray (where the Sun would appear directly overhead) reaches the Tropic of Capricorn, 23.5 degrees south of the Equator. This date also marks the shortest period of daylight in the Northern Hemisphere and 24 hours of darkness north of the Arctic Circle (66.5 degrees N). Normally, the Great Lakes region will already have been experiencing a month or more of winter-like conditions, but the deep cold of January and February are yet to come.
The good news here? It won’t be apparent for about a month, but the length of daylight hours will now begin increasing until the Summer Solstice in June. Some people find the lack of daylight distressing during these long, dark nights. With no medical training, we can’t speak with any kind of expertise on how to cure the winter blues. Serious cases of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) may require professional medical help. Many find taking Vitamin D supplements or daily doses of light from special ‘sun lamp’ help. In any event, get outside and enjoy the nice winter days – that is a prescription we can recommend to help speed the passing of times as the old year passes into the new. Happy Holidays to all.
Compiled by Ken Raisanen of WOAS-FM – information provided by Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar, Michigan State University. More information and subscription information can be found on their website at http://abramsplanetarium.org/skycalendar/ or on Twitter at http://twitter.com/AbramsSkyNotes. Yearly subscriptions cost $12 and can be started anytime.
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