November 25, 2012

What's Up in December: Several highlights worth bundling up for

By Bernie Reim

(Continued from page 1)

The two brightest asteroids, Ceres and Vesta, will also be at opposition in December. You can find them in Taurus with just a pair of binoculars. The Dawn spacecraft just visited Vesta and it will reach 600-mile-wide Ceres in 2015. Vesta, at about 400 miles in diameter, is a little smaller than our largest asteroid. Dawn showed Vesta had a bizarre surface with a huge crater showing a giant central peak at its south pole, along with a series of parallel grooves near its equator. Vesta is also a little too small to be completely round, so it is more potato-shaped. It is important to learn as much as we can about these two asteroids because each of them almost became a planet. The strong gravitational force of Jupiter kept that from happening.

Mercury and Saturn have now joined Venus in the morning sky. Look southeast one hour before sunrise on three consecutive mornings between the 9th and the 11th, and you will witness the waning crescent moon as it first points out the star Spica in Virgo, then Saturn, and then Venus. By the time of the winter solstice, Venus and Mercury will have sunk lower into the morning sky and they will form a nice triangle with Antares in Scorpius in the southeastern morning sky.

I watched a live feed of the total solar eclipse from northern Australia back on Nov. 13. That was quite an experience, but certainly not the same as being there. The website did a great job broadcasting this rare event. Tens of millions of people watched it live on their website. Other websites crashed before the event even started.

Part of the eclipse was overcast, but they did get to see some of the two-minute totality, when the sun was completely covered by the moon. The corona, or atmosphere of the sun, is safe to look at without any filters during this time. There were some beautiful streamers visible in the active corona, which extends beyond the disk of the sun by the diameter of its disk.

It is ironic that the real and subtle beauty of the sun is only visible when it is completely covered by the moon. Remember that the corona is always there, but it is usually overridden by the sun itself. The next live event that will cover is the partial lunar eclipse on Nov. 28. Then they will cover some of the Jupiter opposition early in December. You can become a member on this site for a low fee and be able to control large telescopes in the Canary Islands and Chile. Younger people are already very good at technology. Now, with the simple motion of a mouse, they can control a great telescope and get useful data from it. This is a perfect way for anyone to get involved in real science and have a lot of fun learning along the way.


Dec. 2 -- Jupiter is at opposition.

Dec. 6 -- Last quarter moon is at 10:31 a.m. EST.

Dec. 7 -- Jupiter passes 5 degrees north of Aldebaran in Taurus.

Dec. 9 -- The asteroid Vesta is at opposition.

Dec. 10 -- The moon passes south of Saturn this morning.

Dec. 11 -- The moon passes south of Venus this morning.

Dec. 12 -- The moon is at perigee, or closest to the earth this evening at 221,876 miles.

Dec. 13 -- New moon is at 3:42 am EST. The Geminid meteor shower peaks.

Dec. 15 -- The moon passes six degrees north of Mars this morning.

Dec. 20 -- First quarter moon is at 12:19 a.m.

Dec. 21 -- Winter solstice occurs at 6:12 a.m. This marks the lowest point of the sun for the year with the longest nights and shortest days.

Dec. 25 -- The moon is at apogee, or farthest from earth at 252,337 miles today. Isaac Newton was born on this day in 1642. The moon passes 0.4 degrees south of Jupiter this evening.

Dec. 28 -- Full moon is at 5:21 am. This is also called the Long Night Moon or Moon Before Yule if it takes place before Christmas.

Bernie Reim of Wells is co-director of the Astronomical Society of Northern New England.


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