December brings us a rather robust meteor shower in the form of the Geminids which will begin on the evening of the 14th. This year, a bright waxing Moon will hinder viewing during most of the night. If you wait until about 3 a.m. local time on the 15th, the Moon will set. At that time the constellation Gemini will have moved around to the northwest, so that is the direction you should look. If you manage to find a good dark location, you may see up to 150 meteors per hour! The Geminids originate from the debris trail of an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon which makes a close approach to the Sun every 1.4 years. Thus, the debris trail gets replenished fairly often.
This month, in the southwestern sky, the planetary trio of Venus, Saturn and Jupiter form a nice line as they slowly head for the south-southwestern horizon. On the 31st, this trio is joined by Mercury as it pokes up just above southwestern horizon. Visible just to the left of Venus, about 45 minutes after sunset, binoculars will aid in finding the tiny planet.
The Red planet Mars has begun its ascension into the night sky after its conjunction with the Sun which made it invisible for the past couple of months. Mars will be visible just above the southeastern horizon all month about an hour before sunrise. Shining at a relatively faint magnitude of +1.5, it will take some time for it to rise above the horizon and become easily visible.
The Moon will be new on the 4th, first quarter on the 11th, full on the 19th, and last quarter on the 27th. Looking south-southwest on the 6th, about 45 minutes after sunset, the crescent Moon will be just below brilliant Venus. On the following evening, at about the same time, the Moon will be below the ringed planet Saturn. Look to the southeast on the morning of the 31st about an hour before sunrise. The waning crescent Moon will be slightly above and will form a nice triangle with Mars and the red giant star Antares in the constellation Scorpius. Antares translates, because of its red color, into the “Rival of Mars.” This will be a good opportunity to compare the two. Binoculars will enhance the comparison.
On December 21st, winter begins for the northern hemisphere at 8:59 a.m. MST while our friends below the equator get to celebrate the first day of summer.
Due to Covid-19 restrictions there will not be a first Saturday star party at the Etscorn Campus Observatory.
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club