It appears Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) did not survive its close encounter with the Sun, so its long-anticipated show in the December morning sky is not to be. But there’s another comet to observe, Comet C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy), and plenty of bright stars and planets to satisfy stargazers this month. The large hexagon of bright stars rises in the east by late evening, from Capella in the northeast to Sirius, Rigel, and Betelgeuse in the southeast. Venus is blazing bright in the southwestern sky. And there’s a meteor shower, one of the best of the year. Here’s what’s happening in the night sky this month…
* * * What to See in a Small Telescope This Month * * *
“What To See In A Small Telescope” takes you to nearly 100 deep-sky sights in the night sky from October through December. Includes maps and instructions to find every object, and tips on what to look for. Nebulae, galaxies, star clusters, and more. Click here to learn more…
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3 December. New Moon, 0:22 UT
5 Dec. Look for still-brilliant Venus southeast of the waxing crescent Moon in the southwestern sky just after sunset. At magnitude -4.9, the planet is about as bright as it ever gets . In a telescope, the planet has thinned in early December to a slender crescent and grown to a size of about 50″. The planet will appear to move towards the Sun and lower to the horizon as the month moves on.
9 Dec. First Quarter Moon, 15:12 UT
10 Dec. Look for a very bright Jupiter just 1/4 of a degree from the star Wasat in the constellation Gemini. The planet is a brilliant magnitude -2.7 high in the eastern sky in mid-evening and grows to an apparent diameter of 47″… very fine for telescopic observing. The planet reaches opposition early next month.
13-14 Dec. The Geminid meteor shower peaks. This is one of the best meteor showers of the year, with many dozens of bright, slow-moving meteors each hour flashing across the sky. The Geminids occur as the Earth passes through a stream of debris from the tiny asteroid, or more likely a dead rocky comet nucleus, called 3200 Phaeton. Look for the meteors late in the evening of the 13th and into the morning of the 14th. They will appear anywhere in the sky but they trace their paths back to a point near the star Castor in the constellation Gemini. This year a waxing gibbous Moon will get in the way before midnight, so look for meteors in the part of the sky away from the Moon. The shower is likely better in the northern hemisphere, but some will be visible in the south too.
14-15 Dec. Comet C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy) comes within 2º of the star ζ (zeta) Herculi in the “Keystone” of Hercules. Look for the Keystone just above the eastern horizon about an hour before sunrise. The comet will likely be just visible without optics in dark sky, and easily visible in binoculars. Its tail will span about 2º and point away from the Sun. The image below (courtesy of Sky and Telescope) shows the path of Comet Lovejoy through the month…
17 Dec. Full Moon, 09:28 UT
21 Dec. The December solstice occurs at 17:11 UT marking the beginning of summer in the southern hemisphere and winter in the north. This will be the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere… good for stargazing!
25 Dec. Last-Quarter Moon, 13:48 UT.
Dec. 28. Mars comes within 1º of the 3rd-magnitude star Porrima in the constellation Virgo. The spectacle is visible in the eastern pre-dawn sky. Mars brightens this month to magnitude +0.9. It’s still small however, just 6″ across, so it’s not much to look at. Porrima itself is an excellent double star for a small telescope.
Dec. 28. Also on the 28th, look for Saturn low on the southeastern horizon at dawn near the star Zubenelgenubi (alpha Librae) and a waning crescent Moon.