Sunday, December 5, 2010

December Skies

Hey Space Placers!

My oh my! What month of skywatching December brings as the Geminid Meteor Shower and a total lunar eclipse take top billing. But first, join me at George Mason University Observatory on Monday, December 6th (weather permitting) at 6:00 p.m. Make sure you dress warmly. Check here for more details and weather status

Skywatching Highlights

The Geminid Meteor Shower takes place on the night of the 13th-14th. This is a very active and enjoyable event as from a dark sky site observers can see perhaps 60 to 100 meteors an hour. Even from suburban skies it is worth looking as these bits of debris from asteroid 3200 Phaethon really are pretty bright. Meteor showers are usually caused by cometary debris so the Geminids are unique. To see the Geminids, start looking to the northeast at around 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. The best time to look will be after midnight up to dawn. Find a comfortable spot to put a reclining lawn chair, or just lie down on a blanket-sleeping bag, bundle up and cast your gaze overhead.
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On the 21st the Full Moon enters the Earth’s dark shadow at 1:33 a.m., and remains partially eclipsed until the beginning of totality at 2:41 a.m. The Moon will remain totally eclipsed until 3:53 a.m. with the last trace of partial eclipse ending at 5:01 a.m. You do not need optical aid to see the eclipse but binoculars or a small telescope will enhance the view greatly. The eclipse will be visible even in the city as long as you are not directly under or staring into a street light. This is the first total lunar eclipse for our area in almost 3 years so make sure you get out to see it. The dark shadow of the Earth’s limb will be seen curving across the face of the Moon during the partial eclipse phases. During totality, we will possibly see a reddish-copper colored tint or it may be other colors ranging from almost black to dark reddish-brown on the Moon. The colors are caused by the refraction (bending) of sunlight by the Earth’s atmosphere – all of the planet’s sunrises and sunsets that are occurring around the world. The tint of the colors depends on the conditions present in the atmosphere – if it is clear a copper color may rule while major fires or volcanic eruptions may create darker red-browns or almost no color. If you were on the Moon you would see a 360-degree colored ring of light around the Earth and see the same color on the lunar surface. Stars would be everywhere as the Sun would be blocked – what a view it would be!
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The Winter Solstice (the start of winter) occurs at 6:38 p.m. on the 21st and marks the longest night of the year.

Mercury is very low to the western horizon and not easily seen.

Brilliant Venus continues to grace the morning sky in the east rising 3 hours before dawn as the month begins. By mid-month Venus will be 30 degrees above the horizon.

Mars is hard to see low in the west at sunset.

Bright Jupiter is well up in the south at sunset and remains visible until about midnight. If you have binoculars or a telescope you can watch the four main moons of Jupiter change their position night after night.

Saturn rises in the eastern sky at 2 a.m.

New Moon is on the 5th, First Quarter Moon is on the 13th and this month’s Full Moon occurs on the 20th. This month’s Full Moon is called the “Full Cold Moon or the Full Long Nights Moon” in recognition of the start of winter. Last Quarter Moon is on the 27th.

Here are our down to Earth events for this month.

Open House at the Department of Astronomy at the University of Maryland, College Park Campus Observatory, will be at 8 p.m. on the 5th and the 20th.
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The National Capital Astronomers (NCA) have their monthly meeting on the 11th at 7:30 p.m. at the University of Maryland, College Park Campus Observatory. The speaker is Dr. Scott Sheppard, Satellites of the Giant Planets.
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The Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (NOVAC) will meet at 7 p.m. at George Mason University (GMU) on the 12th. The speaker is Professor Sylvester Gates from the University of Maryland. Professor Gates will be giving an update of the status and results to date from the Large Hadron Collider.
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NOVAC will host a public star party on the 4th at Sky Meadows and CM Crockett Park. These events are a great opportunity to get out under the stars and look through a wide variety of telescopes.
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The United States Naval Observatory (USNO) has Monday night tours but space is limited.
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The National Air and Space Museum (NASM) has several space related activities this month.
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The TriState Astronomers General Meeting will be held on the 15th, 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., at the William Brish Planetarium, Commonwealth Ave, Hagerstown, MD.
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Sky Guy in VA

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