December 2018

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections; what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope and with a Dobsonian reflector. The best time to view the night sky is at and around the times when the Moon is not visible, what is known as a New Moon; which will occur this month on December 7th. For December, your best viewing nights will be from December 1st to the 13th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on December 15th at 9 pm.  Note: A new table of contents for earlier columns is located in this January 2018 column.

Geminids Meteor Shower:

 If you have been following my column, you will remember that I reported that the December Geminids meteor shower has consistently been the best shower for the last several years. If you enjoy watching meteors, or have never tried to observe a meteor shower, you should go out late night on December 13th, after midnight on the morning of the 14th as the best viewing is always after midnight. There are some problems that can ruin a meteor shower. The first is of course bad weather. The next one you can control; location. To maximize the number of meteors you see, you must be out in the country, and away from the city lights. The last problem is the Moon. Most of the meteors you will see are quite faint, and any lights nearby will wash them from your view. Having a Moon in the sky is like having someone pointing a flashlight at your eyes as you are observing. So your goal is to find a dark area to view, and a moonless night. This December, the Moon will not interfere with your viewing, the same as last year (unfortunately last year was cloudy). The next year without a Moon during the Geminids is 2020, and then again in 2023 and 2025.

The other major meteor showers each year have been giving only 10 to 20 meteors per hour. This year, the Geminids may again shine as the best meteor shower of the year. Astronomers are predicting as high as 120 meteors per hour. These predictions are for very dark sky sites. If this year’s prediction is correct, areas on the outskirts of Florence should see over 80 meteors per hour, which is worth staying up late. Meteor showers should only be viewed with the naked eye, no binoculars. The reason is that although the meteors appear to come from one area of the sky, in this case the constellation Gemini (see above), they may actually appear in almost any part of the sky. They also move too fast to see with binoculars. A lounge chair will be a good viewing aid, because one down side of constantly looking up is a stiff neck. This time of year, another problem may be the cold weather, so bring blankets or a sleeping bag for your lounge chair. Hot chocolate is another good viewing aid for the Geminids shower.

 

Comets:

We have definitely been in a lull for comet viewing. Whenever there has been a long time between good comet viewing, I tend to search out comets that cannot be seen with the naked eye. My general rule is if a comet cannot be seen with the naked eye, I will search for it with binoculars only, not telescopes. Distant comets are usually very faint, so the use of two eyes can usually be beneficial. Any size binoculars are worth trying, but I prefer to search with my 15 X 50 mm image stabilized binoculars. If I can see the comet, I will then switch to the big binoculars (25 X 100 mm).

This December is when one of these “lesser” comets will pass close enough for binocular viewing, with the closest approach on the 16th. The comet is called Wirtanen, and it was discovered in 1948. Its full name is 46P/Wirtanen, because it is one of many short period comets. It orbits the Sun every 5.4 years.

This is the closest approach we will see for the next 20 years. There is also the rare chance that it will be visible to the naked eye. Another treat is that it is in a well-known area of the sky (between the Pleaides Cluster and the constellation Taurus) from the 14th to the 17th. You will have a better view of the comet after the Moon sets at midnight. The circle below shows the area to scan/search using seven power binoculars.

 

Neptune:

If you are trying to complete a viewing list of all the planets, the most difficult to find is usually Neptune. Early this month Neptune appears close to the planet Mars. Mars has been visible for several months, and is an easy naked eye target in the southwest this month. The closest visual approach is December 5th through the 8th. The location of Mars is shown below.

The location of Neptune nearby Mars is shown below on December 7th at 25 power.

If you have seen Uranus through a telescope, it is a pretty blue ball. Neptune is also blue, but because of the extreme distance, it is dimmer, and dull blue in color; check it out. Your best view will likely be with a Dobsonian scope, but a good refractor will also work.

 

Have a wonderful Christmas and a prosperous New Year!

 

Naked Eye Sights: The Geminids meteor shower on the night of the 13th and morning of the 14th. If the weather is bad that night, definitely check out the night sky a day before and after the peak night. Also enjoy the return of the wonderful constellation Orion.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Orion Nebula and the Pleiades

Telescope Sights (60-100mm: The planet Mars and Neptune. The Orion Nebula

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch): The planet Mars and Neptune. The Orion Nebula

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