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December skies of the Gulf Coast

The Moon and Mars captured by EAAA member Tom Haugh.

The waxing gibbous moon passes just below Jupiter as December begins. Then a week later, it rises as sunset as the Long Night Full Moon. It lies spectacularly close to the bright red planet Mars, then at opposition and closest to earth. The Moon and Mars will appear in a low power (40X) telescope in Pensacola on December 7, 2022 at 9:12 p.m., when they appear closest together locally. The EAAA will host a planet watch for the campers at Big Lagoon that evening, with Jupiter and Saturn also well placed for viewing with our large high resolution telescopes.

As you might guess, if you live farther north, parallax will shift the moon far enough south to make it occult the Red Planet. If you lie north and west of a diagonal line running through central Kansas, you will see an occultation, with the Moon covering Mars for up to an hour in some places.

The last quarter moon is December 16. The northern hemisphere of the Earth is tilted most away from the Sun at Winter Solstice on December 21 at 3:48 p.m. CST, the shortest day for us. The new moon is December 23, and the next evening, if it is clear enough, you also see fainter Mercury to the upper left of much brighter Venus. The first quarter moon is overhead on December 29, to bring the year to an end.

As noted above, Mercury and Venus both are returning to the evening sky by mid December. On the solstice on December 21, Mercury lies six degrees above far brighter Venus, but then retrogrades back toward the Sun. It passes 1.7 degrees to the right of Venus in the dusk about 40 minutes after sunset on December 29. By December 31, Venus climbs higher and brighter in the southwest, but Mercury is disappearing in the Sun’s glare as the year begins. Venus will dominate the western sky for most of 2023.

Mars reaches opposition, passing closest to us on December 7, the same night the full moon just misses it! It is in Taurus, and passes almost overhead around midnight, the best time to see it at high power.

Here is Mars a month before opposition on November 9, with Northwest Florida Amateur Astronomers’ Tom Haugh’s 12” Astrola reflector.

Jupiter is still well placed for evening viewing in Aquarius, due south at dusk, and Saturn is getting lower in the southwest in Capricornus. So all three of the best planets for amateur viewing from Earth are well placed now. Get out and observe!

While the naked eye, dark adapted by several minutes away from any bright lights, is a wonderful instrument to stare up into deep space, far beyond our own Milky Way, binoculars are better for spotting specific deep sky objects. For a detailed map of northern hemisphere skies visit skymaps.com.

If you want an ideal app for learning the constellations, download “Nocturne” for Apple phones, and mount it on a tripod for 2’ exposures of the sky, which you can then annotate with star names, constellarion lines, and even the mythological figures. Makes the sky come alive.

The constellation Cassiopeia makes a striking west in the northwest. She contains many nice star clusters for binocular users in her outer arm of our Milky Way, extending to the northeast now. Her daughter, Andromeda, starts with the northeast corner star of Pegasus’ Square, and goes northeast with two more bright stars in a row. It is from the middle star, beta Andromeda, that we proceed about a quarter the way to the top star in the west of Cassiopeia, and look for a faint blur with the naked eye. M-31, the Andromeda Galaxy, is the most distant object visible with the naked eye, lying about 2.5 million light years distant.

Look at Perseus’ feet for the famed Pleiades cluster; they lie about 400 light years distant, and over 250 stars are members of this fine group. East of the seven sisters is the V of stars marking the face of Taurus the Bull, with bright orange Aldebaran as his eye. The V of stars is the Hyades cluster, older than the blue Pleiades, but about half their distance. Their appearance in November in classical times was associated with the stormy season, when frail sailing ships stayed in port. Aldeberan is not a member of the Hyades, but about twice as close as the Hyades; distances in astronomy can be deceiving. Mars sits between the horns of the bull as December begins. Compare its color with that of Aldeberan.

Yellow Capella, a giant star the same temperature and color as our much smaller Sun, dominates the overhead sky. It is part of the pentagon on stars making up Auriga, the Charioteer. Several nice binocular Messier open clusters are found in the winter milky way here. East of Auriga, the twins, Castor and Pollux highlight the Gemini. UWF alumni can associate the pair with Jason and the Golden Fleece legend, for they were the first two Argonauts to sign up on his crew of adventurers.

South of Gemini, Orion is the most familiar winter constellation, dominating the eastern sky at dusk. The reddish supergiant Betelguese marks his eastern shoulder, while blue-white supergiant Rigel stands opposite on his west knee. Just south of the belt, hanging like a sword downward, is M-42, the Great Nebula of Orion, an outstanding binocular and telescopic stellar nursery. It is part of a huge spiral arm gas cloud, with active starbirth all over the place.

Last but certainly not least, in the east rise the hunter’s two faithful companions, Canis major and minor. Procyon is the bright star in the little dog, and rises minutes before Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Sirius dominates the southeast sky by 7 p.m., and as it rises, the turbulent winter air causes it to sparkle with shafts of spectral fire. Beautiful as the twinkling appears to the naked eye, for astronomers this means the image is blurry; only in space can we truly see “clearly now”. At eight light years distance, Sirius is the closest star we can easily see with the naked eye from West Florida. You must be in south Florida to spot Alpha Centauri on June evenings. Below Sirius in binoculars is another fine open cluster, M-41, a fitting dessert for New Year’s sky feast.

We have set new dates for our public gazes at Big Lagoon State Park west of Pensacola for these Saturdays: November 19, December 17, January 14 and 21, February 11 and 25, and March 11 and 25. Be sure to check in at the gate before sunset.

For more information on the Escambia Amateur Astronomers, visit eaaa.net or join us on Facebook.

Dr. John Wayne Wooten has been teaching science since 1970, with a special concentration on astronomy. He received his Doctor of Education in Astronomy from University of Florida in 1979. He was an educator at Pensacola State College since 1974 and University of West Florida since 1984 before retiring in 2017. He still continues to teach distance learning astronomy for Tennessee colleges.