December 2014

It is the last month of the year and winter arrives just before Christmas. The evenings are quite cold and it now gets dark so early that almost anyone is more likely to be outside after dark. The cold, dark and dry December skies present some of the best viewing opportunities, so just look up if you happen to be outside after dark. A prepared observer, however, will walk away with an even more enjoyable experience.

CONSTELLATIONS

This month there are many new constellations to explore, some of them are quite challenging and might only be observable at a dark sky site with a clear southern horizon. Many of the constellations from the past few months are still visible, so this is a good time for a refresher. A planosphere or smartphone app like Google Sky Map can help determine where to look to find each constellation, and a Wikipedia link is provided to further aid in identifying each constellation’s appearance.

Picis Austrinus (Southern fish)
This constellation, located directly south of (below) Aquarius, never rises very high above the southern horizon from our northern hemisphere location. In a light-polluted sky, 1st magnitude Fomualhaut might be the only visible star. This constellation is related to one of the 48 constellations cataloged by 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piscis_Austrinus

Sculptor (The sculptor)
This is another southern constellation of dim stars that does not rise very high in the sky. I have never seen it, so I will be sure to look for it during my next visit to a dark sky site. The most notable characteristic of this constellation is that it contains the southern pole of the Milky Way Galaxy. The implication of this is that an observer is looking out of the galactic plane, instead of through its long axis as when observing the Milky Way. This explains why there are fewer stars in this region of the sky. Find this constellation by looking south of Aquarius (from October’s Scope Out and Cetus from November’s Scope Out.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sculptor_(constellation)

Phoenix (The mythical Phoenix)
Another low, dim southern constellation, located south (below) Sculptor.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenix_(constellation)

Lacerta (The lizard)
This is a northern hemisphere constellation that presents a slight “W” shape, and is hence sometimes referred to as “Little Cassiopeia.” It is located south of Cepheus and north of Pegasus. Cassiopeia and Andromeda are also nearby. Most notable for telescope viewers is Roe 47, a multiple star system consisting of five gravitationally-bound components between 6th and 10th magnitude. While the brightest, 6th magnitude component can usually be seen with the unaided eye under very dark skies, a modest telescope is required to see all five components.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lacerta

Triangulum (The triangle)
This small northern constellation presents as well-formed triangle of three stars. It is not bright enough to jump out at the observer, but can be seen in all but the most light-polluted skies. Look for it between Perseus, Andromeda, and Pisces.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangulum

Aries (The ram)
Aries, one of Ptolemy’s 48 2nd-century constellations, is our zodiacal constellation for this month. It is located on the ecliptic between Pisces and Taurus, and just south of Triangulum. This constellation’s stars are easily seen, but the constellation bears little resemblance to a ram. The most notable aspect of this constellation is that it is on one intersection of the celestial equator and the ecliptic, representing the Sun’s location at Vernal Equinox.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aries_(constellation)

SOLAR SYSTEM OBJECTS

The Sun. The Winter Solstice is December 21st, the longest night and shortest day of 2014. There are a couple of things that can be noted for someone wishing to gain a greater understanding of the Sun’s seasonal movement. On the day of the solstice, note the direction in which the Sun rises and sets, and note how high in the sky the Sun is at noon. Save these observational notes, because we will refer to them again when recording these same points at the equinox in March, and at the Summer Solstice in June. The differences will be astonishing!

Lunar Calendar

December 5 Among the Hyades
December 6 Full Moon
December 12-13 Conjunction with Jupiter
December 14 Last Quarter
December 19 Conjunction with Saturn
December 22 New Moon
December 22 Conjunction with Venus
December 29 First Quarter


The Planets

Mercury makes a brief evening appearance late in the month. It will be difficult to spot as it quickly follows the Sun below the horizon. By December the 31st, it can be seen very close to Venus.

Venus begins an evening apparition late in the month that lasts through July 2015. It will be difficult to spot very low on the western horizon after sunset, setting during dusk at first, and then just as it gets completely dark by month’s end. Look for a pretty paring of Venus and a very thin crescent moon on December 22nd.

Mars moves from Sagittarius into Capricornus this month, and will remain low on the western horizon above and to the left of the sunset point.

Jupiter continues to grow larger (telescopically) and brighter, and rise earlier each evening as it progresses toward its next opposition in February. It rises above the eastern horizon at about 10pm in early December, and at about 8pm by late December. It has grown quite large (43 arcminutes) for telescope observers.

Saturn returns as a morning object, rising about an hour before the Sun at the beginning of the month, and about three hours before sunrise by month’s end.

EVENTS

December 13-14 – Geminids Meteor Shower
Look for this meteor shower just before midnight on these two nights. There is a good chance of seeing a hundred or more meteors per hour! The radiant (the apparent point of origin) is in the constellation Gemini, which will be high overhead as midnight approaches. Be sure to get some observing in before the Moon rises at about 11pm and midnight on these two nights.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geminids

© 2014 James R. Johnson.

November 2014

It is now late fall, and winter is almost here. The Sun sets at around 6pm on November 1st, and it is dark enough to begin observing by 7pm. Daylight-saving time ends the next day, so it is suddenly dark enough to begin observing at 6pm, which is four hours earlier than an observer could have started in July! The challenge quickly becomes, especially if setting up a telescope, getting home from work early enough to set up while there is still some remaining daylight. The evenings are becoming much chillier, so be sure to dress warmly if going out to gaze. As late fall weather produces some of the best seeing conditions, be alert for opportunities to get out under the stars.

CONSTELLATIONS

With six constellations to cover, this a busy month for an observer who is learning the constellations. None of these constellations are very bright, so this will be a challenging month. Also, many of the constellations from the past few months are still visible, so this is a good time for a refresher. A planosphere or smartphone app like Google Sky Map can help determine where to look to find each constellation, and a Wikipedia link is provided to further aid in identifying each constellation’s appearance.

A Group of Four Small Constellations
First up is a group of four small and dim constellations placed rather high in the sky at sunset: Sagitta, Vulpecula, Equules, and Delphinus, As two of the constellations are located within the Summer Triangle (July 2014), it is easy to find the right area of the sky for an observer who can locate the Triangle and the constellations that surround the group of four. Find the boundry constellations by starting with Aquila (July 2014). From there move counterclockwise around the group by locating locate Hercules (June 2014), Lyra (July 2014), Cygnus (July 2014), Pegasus (Oct 2014), and Aquarius (Oct 2014).

Sagitta (The arrow)
Find this tiny constellation by starting with Altair in Cygnus, and move directly north toward Vega in Lyra. Yep, it looks like an arrow, and can be readily seen under a reasonably dark sky. This is one of the 48 constellations cateloged by Ptolemy in the 2nd century.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sagitta

Vulpecula (The little fox)
This small constellation of just a few moderately bright stars occupies the center of The Summer Triangle. This constellation bears little resemblance to a fox.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vulpecula

Delphinus (The dolphin)
Locate Delphinus by returning to Sagitta, and moving west toward Pegasus. This is perhaps the most interesting of these four constellations as it loosely resembles a dolphin.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delphinus

Equuleus (The little horse)
Located west and south of Delphinus, this little constellation of just a few stars does not at all resemble a horse.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equuleus

Pisces (The fish)
Our zodiacal constellation this month is a rather dim grouping of stars that are strung out low across the southern sky. I have seen this constellation under a clear summer sky in Hawaii where it is placed higher in the sky, and there is no light pollution sources near Hawaii’s southern coast. Under these conditions, I could identify all of its stars, and it is quite striking to behold. This constellation is a worthwhile challenge for northern observers. How many stars can you see? Locate this constellation just south of the Great Square of Pegasus.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pisces_(constellation)

Cetus (A sea monster in Greek mythology)
This is another constellation of somewhat dim stars hanging even lower in the southern sky, thus compounding the difficulty of seeing it. I have also seen this whale-like constellation from Hawaii, and it is pretty impressive.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cetus

SOLAR SYSTEM OBJECTS

The Sun. We see a lot less of the Sun this month. The days continue to grow shorter, but at a much slower rate. This allows star gazers to get out earlier, and perhaps right after getting home from work. Unfortunately, the Sun’s low angle brings colder weather, so be sure to bundle up!

Lunar Calendar

November 6 Full Moon
November 14 Last Quarter
November 14 Conjunction with Jupiter
November 22 New Moon
November 25 Conjunction with Mars
November 29 First Quarter

The Planets

Mercury reaches its greatest elongation from the Sun on the morning of November 1st. This is Mercury’s best morning apparition of 2014, so be sure to look for in the east just above and to the right of the sunrise point about forty-five minutes before sunrise.

Mars moves into Sagittarius and will remain low on the western horizon above and to the left of the sunset point throughout the month as it is quickly reaching the end of its present apparition.

Jupiter continues to grow larger (telescopically) and brighter, and rise earlier each morning. Look for it by starting at the eastern horizon and moving half way up toward the zenith. It rises above the eastern horizon at about 2am in early November, and at about 11pm by late November.

EVENTS

November 17-18 – Leonid Meteor Shower
Look for this meteor shower at around midnight on these two nights. The radiant (the apparent point of origin) is in the constellation Leo, which will be high overhead at midnight. Interestingly, at any given time of the year, the Earth is moving toward whatever stars happen to be directly overhead at midnight, and it “smashes” into the debris field that crosses the Earth’s orbit and creates the shower.

The Leonid shower of 2002 was the best meteor shower that I have ever witnessed. I went out at around midnight near the peak, and the origin was nearly directly overhead. I could see about six to eight meteors per minute that seemed to fly out of the origin in all directions. While lying on my back and looking straight up at the origin the visual effect was very much like the old Windows screen saver that gave the appearance of flying through a star field.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonids

© 2014 James R. Johnson.