The Sky This Week, December 16 – 23, 2014 !

The Sky This Week, 2014 December 16 – 23

Bright lights on the longest nights
NewYears_2011-12small.jpg
Orion and Friends
Imaged near Morattico, Virginia, New Year’s Eve, 2011-12

The Moon dives toward the southern stretches of the ecliptic in the pre-dawn hours this week.  New Moon falls on the 21st at 8:36 pm Eastern Standard Time.  Luna’s waning crescent may be found about five degrees to the east of the bright star Virgo on the morning of the 17th.  On the morning of the 19th, look for the yellow glimmer of Saturn about five degrees to the east of the Moon. Look for Luna’s slender crescent to return to the evening sky by the week’s end.

The Winter Solstice occurs on the 21st at 6:03 pm EDT, marking the beginning of the astronomical season of winter.  At this time the Sun will reach its most southerly point along the ecliptic at a point above the Tropic of Capricorn some 5000 kilometers (3000 miles) south of the Hawai’ian Islands.  For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere this will also correspond to the shortest length of daylight we’ll experience for the year.  Here in Washington we’ll have just 9 hours 26 minutes between sunrise and sunset.  Of course, for our friends in the Southern Hemisphere, this marks the beginning of summer, and they see their shortest nights.

The December solstice has been an important yearly event that has been observed and commemorated by people since very ancient times.  In particular it was widely observed by the Neolithic people of Europe, and many of the ancient monuments that dot the landscapes of the British Isles and northern France were used to observe the passing of this special day.  Our modern holidays have been adapted from many of these ancient observances, many with a common theme of light to chase away the long winter darkness.  For ancient people this was a welcome turning point in the year since it portended the gradual return of the warming Sun and the (eventual) end of winter.

Those of us who love to watch the stars truly find this to be “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” with darkness settling over the land in the early evening giving us plenty of time to enjoy celestial sights and still get to bed at a decent hour.  As a reward for us Nature has given us the best and brightest stars to enjoy through the long nights.  Just as evening twilight ends we see Orion climbing up over the eastern horizon, and by 8:30 pm he is in full view, attended by his bright retinue of bright stellar companions.  Orion sits in the middle of a large arc of stars that are known as the Great Winter Circle.  Just below and to the left of Orion’s “belt” you’ll see Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, twinkling furiously in the turbulence above the horizon.  Moving northward you’ll pass Procyon, then come to the Gemini twins, Pollux and Castor.  From there swing northwestward toward the golden glimmer of Capella, then look southward toward the reddish “eye” of Taurus, the Bull and the bright star Aldebaran.  Now continue on toward Rigel, the bright blue star that marks one of Orion’s “knees”, and you’ll complete the circle.  Within the confines of this figure you’ll find nine of the 25 brightest and most colorful stars in the sky, and they will remain visible for the night’s duration.  While many of us decorate our homes with glittering multi-colored light at this time of the year, it’s pretty hard to beat the show that plays out overhead!

The longest nights now also give us the opportunity to see the “wandering” bright lights of the planets, starting with Venus in the evening twilight sky.  The dazzling planet can be glimpsed low in the southwestern sky shortly after sunset, and by the week’s end she herself sets an hour after Old Sol.  She will steadily climb higher into the sky as the new year dawns, and she will put on a dazzling show for us for the first half of 2015.

Mars remains visible in the southwestern sky for a couple of hours after sunset, glowing like a dull cinder in a very sparsely populated part of the sky.  From now until the end of the year he sets at the same time each night, 8:13 pm, so if you go out to observe him at around 6:30 he will appear in the same relative part of the sky each night during that time.

Jupiter continues his rapid progress into the evening sky.  This week the giant planet rises at around 9:00 pm, and I have had him as a companion while driving home from the Observatory after late evening events for the past week.  By midnight he’s well up in the east and provides a great target for the telescope, but if your penchant is to get a look at him in the morning before sunrise he’s still well-placed at that time, too.

As mentioned earlier, the Moon is within a few degrees of Saturn before dawn on the 19th.  He’s still a bit too low for good telescopic viewing, but he promises to also put on a good show in 2015.  Welcome him back if you happen to see him that morning.

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