Stellar Vista Observatory Sky Report: Dec. 7-13

Stock image, St. George News

SOUTHERN UTAH — The Sky Report is presented as a public service by the Stellar Vista Observatory, a nonprofit organization based in Kanab, Utah, which provides opportunities for people to observe, appreciate and comprehend our starry night sky. Additional information is available online. Send questions and comments to [email protected].

The astronomical event of the year is unfolding in front of our eyes, and you don’t even need a telescope to appreciate it. That’s the ultra-close conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, which has been unfolding for months and reaches its climax on Dec. 21.

I keep emphasizing that planetary motions are a process, not one-night events, and they’re your opportunity to actually watch the planets move and to see changes in the sky. Jupiter and Saturn will be at their closest on Dec. 21, and the news media will focus on and hype that night as if only that one night matters, but regular readers of the Sky Report know better.

As the week begins, Jupiter is one-quarter of the way up the southwest sky as darkness falls, and Jupiter is so bright it’s the first “star” to appear. On Monday, the fainter Saturn sits a scant one-and-a-half degrees to the upper left of Jupiter. This is three times the diameter of the moon and less than the width of a finger held at arm’s length, so they’re especially close.

You can easily see them together in binoculars and even in wide-angle, low-power telescopes. But Jupiter is moving toward Saturn and on Sunday, their separation will have decreased to less one degree! Watch them nightly and notice the change.

Also in the evening sky is the orange planet Mars, brighter than any star and high in the southeast as darkness falls; it’s visible until well after midnight. Brilliant Venus is in the morning sky, where it rises two hours before the sun and is very pretty as dawn approaches.

The year’s best meteor shower, the Geminids, peaks on the nights of Dec. 13-14 with most meteors falling after midnight. These slow meteors are debris shed by the asteroid Phaethon, which is highly unusual as other meteors come from comets, but perhaps Phaethon is a “dead” comet since it has a comet-like orbit.

These meteors radiate from the direction of the constellation Gemini, hence their name, although they’re seen all over the sky. You might see one meteor a minute, including faint ones. Dress warmly! As always, Google “Geminids” and “Phaethon” for much more information.

A total eclipse of the sun happens on Dec. 14, but it’s visible only from southern South America; there’s nothing to see from North America.

Written by JOHN MOSLEY. John Mosley was program supervisor of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles for 27 years and is the author of “Stargazing for Beginners” and “Stargazing with Binoculars and Telescopes”. He and his wife live in St. George where he continues to stargaze from his retirement home while serving on the advisory committee for Stellar Vista Observatory.

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