Sky-watchers this week can follow Earth’s lone natural satellite as it glides across the sky and poses with some of the most well known celestial treasures.
Moon and Pisces. After nightfall on Monday, December 9, look for the first quarter moon to hang just below the “Circlet,” the most easily recognizable part of the constellation Pisces, or the Fishes. Marking the head of the fish that points westward, this circular pattern of seven faint stars is barely visible with the naked eye from light-polluted city suburbs.
While the nearby moon will make for a convenient guidepost, its glare will require the use of binoculars to help track it down no matter how clear the skies. Look for the Circlet to span about 5 degrees across the sky.
Jupiter Rising. On Wednesday, December 11, look for the king of all neighboring planets, Jupiter, to rise in the east around local dinner time (6 pm). By midnight it will be riding high in the south and appearing as the brightest star-like object in the sky. Backyard telescopes can show it off as a large disk with cloud belts, along with a retinue of four large moons.
Geminids Peak. Look towards the northeast in the late evening on Friday, December 13 for the annual Geminid meteor shower to kick into high gear. The glare from the almost full moon, however, will make the meteors a bit harder to see this year, especially the fainter ones.
Best views will be from the dark countryside, far away from the city lights.
Unlike other showers, where a comet is the source for the particles that streak across the sky, in the Geminids’ case it’s an unusual asteroid named Phaethon. The asteroid passes closer to the sun than most, and has an orbit that more closely resembles comets.
What happens is the same, however. Earth plows into this cloud of debris that’s left behind by the parent object and it happens every year like clock work around mid December.
Earth slams into the thickest part of the shower in the hours from late Friday night into early morning Saturday, and this year we’re expecting anywhere from 30 to 60 shooting stars per hour. So that’s lots of wishes you can make.
Moon points to Pleiades. As darkness sets in on Saturday, December 14, seek out the waxing gibbous moon rising in the east. Using binoculars to cut the lunar glare, look for a stunning, tight group of seven blue-white stars nearby. Known as the Pleiades star cluster, these young stars huddled together in space sit some 400 light years away from Earth, making them one of the closest clusters.
The pair will appear to be separated by no more than 6 degrees, a little more than the width of your fist held at arm’s length.
Moon and Aldebaran. The following night, on Sunday, December 15, the moon will pose next to 65-light year distant Aldebaran, the red eye of Taurus, the bull.
This dying red giant star appears less than 3 degrees south of the moon.