The first quarter moon is Dec. 3. As Jupiter disappears into bright twilight by mid-December, Venus is still moving away from the Sun and passes within two degrees south of Saturn on December 11. The Full Moon, the Yule Moon, is also that Wednesday evening. The waning gibbous moon will interfere with the peak of the Geminid meteor shower on the morning of Dec. 14.The last quarter moon is on Dec. 18.
The Winter Solstice is at 10:19 p.m. on Dec. 21, marking the shortest day of the year. A late Christmas present to observers bordering the Indian and Pacific Ocean is an annular solar eclipse at new moon on December 26. As the year ends, the waxing crescent moon again passes just below Venus on Dec. 28; Saturn is now low on the horizon, and also lost in the sun’s glare by early January, when Venus will be the only planet in the evening sky in early 2020.
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, about Nov. 30 visit the Skymaps website and download the map for December.
The square of Pegasus dominates the western sky. South of it are the watery constellations of Pisces (the fish), Capricorn (Sea Goat), Aquarius (the Water Bearer), and Cetus (the Whale). Below Aquarius is Fomalhaut, the only first magnitude star of the southern fall sky. It is the mouth of Pisces Australius, the Southern Fish.
The constellation Cassiopeia makes a striking W in the NW. 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 NE 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 W 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.
Overhead is Andromeda’s hero, Perseus, rises. Perseus contains the famed eclipsing binary star Algol, where the Arabs imagined the eye of the gorgon Medusa would lie. It fades to a third its normal brightness for six out of every 70 hours, as a larger but cooler orange giant covers about 80 percent of the smaller but hotter and thus brighter companion as seen from Earth.
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.
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 (think Ben Hur). 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.
Stargazing at Big Lagoon State Park: Dec. 7 and 21; Jan. 4 and 25; Feb. 1, 22, and 29, and March 21 and 28
For more information on the Escambia Amateur Astronomers and our local star gazes for the public, visit eaaa.net or join Escambia Amateur Astronomers Association group 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. He and his wife, Merry, have been married since 1980 and they have two sons, Michael and Trevor.