BACKYARD STARGAZER: December sky holds many treats

By Francis Parnell

A holiday treat during December as the Moon, Mercury, and Venus gather on Christmas Eve.

Start the month by looking southward on the 1st to see bright Jupiter only 2.5 degrees below the waxing gibbous Moon.

On the 7th, dazzling red Mars is at Opposition and the Full Cold Moon occults it for most of North America.  In astronomy “occult” means that one object passes in front of another.  According to Sky & Telescope magazine, we should see a very close near miss around 10:30 p.m.  I’ll be observing with my 10×50 binoculars!

The annual Geminid meteor shower peaks on the night of the 13th/14th with 100 meteors per hour visible under perfect conditions.  This year a 70% waning gibbous Moon interferes when it rises about 9:30 p.m.  After sunset we’ll have about three hours to scan the sky for meteors before moonrise.

The Sun is at the Solstice at 4:48 p.m. on the 21st and Winter officially begins in the northern hemisphere; it’s also the longest night of the year.

On the 24th, look southwest just as twilight begins to fade to see the trio of Venus, Mercury, and the 1.5-day-old 4% illuminated crescent Moon forming a nice triangle.  Venus and the Moon are 7 degrees apart and form the base, while Mercury is at the peak, 4 degrees upper left of dazzling Venus and 4 degrees upper right of the thin lunar crescent.

At dusk on the 26th, a thin, waxing crescent Moon can be seen 5 degrees left of yellow Saturn in the southwest.

High in the southwest on the 28th, spot the first-quarter Moon 6 degrees above left of Jupiter.

On the 31st, end 2022 by taking in the sight of the Moon, one day past 1st quarter, about halfway between red Mars to the left and bright Jupiter to the right.

FAST FACT:  Two years ago, cosmologists made an estimate of the number of stars in the universe.  The number they came up with is 40,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.  That’s 40 sextillion stars (or 40 billion-trillion stars) in the observable universe!  And that’s a conservative estimate!  Since then with newer, larger telescopes, plus the new James Webb Space Telescope astronomers have discovered lots more galaxies.

“Keep looking up!”

Author: Stephan Drew

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