Science

Skywatch: Mars brightens in early December, and Geminids peak mid-month

Remark

December’s skies offer casual sky watchers planetary joys and delights of shooting stars.

Soilneighboring planet Mars brightens due to proximity, but the planet reaches opposition on December 8.

According to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, our reddish neighbor will come within about 50 million miles of Earth on December 1, and a week later, on December 8, Mars will face Earth. Sun from our terrestrial perspective, according to the US Naval Observatory. Think of opposition as a ‘full march’. Essentially, this means Mars will be bright and gorgeous at a magnitude of about -1.9 in early December.

Mars rises in the east, while the sun sets in the west – and you can find it hanging out near the constellation’s horns Taurus the bull.

While the Martian opposition officially takes place on December 8, you’ll see the Red Planet quite close to the Moon on the evening of December 7. In the western United States, the full moon will eclipse (block) Mars. In the DC area, Mars seems to appear close to the moon.

Later in December, our favorite red planet loses a bit of brightness, dimming to -1.4 magnitude (bright) by the end of the month, according to the observatory.

On December 1, look for the first quarter moon huddled nearby Jupiterwho seems to hang out in the constellation Fishing in the southeastern sky after sunset. The large, gaseous planet is -2.6 magnitude, very bright. Catch Jupiter all month. The fattening moon will also approach Jupiter on December 28 and pass by the planet on December 29.

As the sky darkens after sunset, search Saturn in the south-southwest is preparing to deploy. The ringed planet is in the constellation Ibex with a magnitude of +0.7, a bit dim under urban conditions.

You catch the playful friends in mid-December Mercury and Venus in the southwest sky as dusk turns to night. They are very low on the horizon. Fleet Mercury will be harder to see at -0.6 magnitude (bright), but Venus will be brilliant at -3.9 magnitude (exceptionally bright). Venus has been hiding near the sun since October and will ascend the evening sky in January.

The Geminid meteor shower peaks December 13-14, and astronomers estimate 150 per hour late in the evening, according to the American Meteor Society (ammeteors.org). You won’t see them all, but if the sky is clear and you avoid streetlights, you can catch several. A waning full moon rises before 10 p.m. and may wash away some meteors.

Autumn passes into winter, like the month of December solstice heralds the change of season on Dec. 21, according to the observatory. On that date, Washington officially gets 9 hours and 26 minutes of daylight, according to the observatory, creating what has been called the shortest day of the year. We will see some more sunlight the next day.

* December 2 — “The Latest on the Great Dinosaur Extinction,” a lecture by Sean Gulick, a research professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Find out how an asteroid impact killed dinosaurs. Organized by PSW Science. 8 p.m., Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club, 2121 Massachusetts Ave. NW in DC Information: pswscience.org.

* December 4 — View the starry skies in late fall through telescopes belonging to members of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (NOVAC). At the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum, Chantilly, Va. (GPS: 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway.) Meet at the museum’s bus parking lot, 5-7 p.m. Information: airandspace.si.edu.

* December 10 — The latest discoveries from the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (Chile) and the James Webb Space Telescope, a lecture by National Science Foundation astrophysicist Joe Pesce. At the regular meeting (online only) of the National Capital Astronomers. 7:30 p.m. To access, visit: capitalastronomers.org.

* December 11 – “Tick, Tick, Tick: Pulsating Star, How We Wonder What You Are,” a lecture by astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered the first radio pulsar in 1967. While Burnell will be lecturing virtually, members and guests are welcome in person to the meeting of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, Room 3301, Exploratory Room, George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. 1:30-3:30 p.m. Info: novac.com.

* December 16 — “Back to the Moon to Stay: Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium,” a talk by planetary geologist Brett Denevi and physicist Wesley Fuhrman, both of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. Organized by PSW Science. 8 p.m., Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club, 2121 Massachusetts Ave. NW in DC Information: pswscience.org.

* December 17 — “Astronomy for Everyone” at Sky Meadows State Park in Fauquier County, Virginia, with members of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club guiding you through the sky. 4:30-7:30 PM GPS: 11012 Edmonds Lane, Delaplane, Virginia, 20144. Info: Novac.com. Park Fee: $10.

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