There’s magic in the air this holiday season and there’s also magic in the December night skies. These long nights are blessed with some of the best constellations of the year. Bundle up, get out that comfy reclining lawn chair, brush away the snow if you have to and enjoy the cold, clear night delights. Let the neighbors watching from a distance think you’re a little nuts lounging in a lawn chair and gazing skyward, but they’re missing out on a great show. Why don’t you invite them to join you?
There’s more to evening entertainment than what you can see on a screen. Keep the coffee, hot chocolate, or my favorite, hot apple cider handy to keep your insides warm and enjoy these special starlit nights. Another thing I love about December star watching is you can get an early start. By 6 p.m. it’s plenty dark enough.
This first week of December, however, we have a celestial white elephant in the sky. Not only do we have a full moon whitewashing out all but the brightest stars, but the official full moon tonight is physically a little closer to Earth than normal. Much of the media will hype it up and call it a “Super Moon,” a fairly recent term.
The truth of the matter is though that it’s not all that super compared to any other full moon. What is significant about the full moon in December is that it takes a very high arc across the sky as it rises at sunrise and sets at sunset. If fact, it basically takes the same high path across the sky as the sun does in June and July.
Despite the pre-winter chill, there are still signs of summer in the early evening Shamokin western sky, where you can see the “summer triangle” of stars: Vega, Altair and Deneb, the brightest stars in their respective constellations. Deneb, a star at least 1,500 light-years away, is the brightest star in the constellation Cygnus the Swan, otherwise known by its nickname “the Northern Cross.” During the holiday season the cross is standing nearly upright above the northwestern horizon. This is the last call for the Northern Cross and the summer triangle, because next month the night side of the Earth will turn away from that part of space.
The great horse Pegasus is riding high in the south-southwestern sky with Cassiopeia the Queen, the one that looks like a bright “W” in the high northern sky. The Big Dipper is still very low in the northern sky, but you’ll notice that from night to night it will gradually get higher, standing diagonally on its handle. The Little Dipper is hanging by its handle above the Big Dipper, with Polaris the North Star at the end of its handle. Because Polaris is shining directly above Earth’s North Pole, it appears that all of the stars in the sky revolve around Polaris once every 24 hours, including our sun.
The later you stay up in the evening the more you’ll see of the best part of December skies rising in the east. By 8 to 9 p.m. you’ll easily see Orion the Hunter, that wonderful winter constellation, rising in the east. Its calling card is the three bright stars in a row that make up Orion’s belt.
Preceding Orion are the bright autumn constellations Taurus the Bull, with the wonderful Pleiades star cluster, and Auriga, the constellation that looks like a lopsided pentagon with the bright star Capella. Auriga’s supposed to be a retired chariot driver turned goat farmer. Just to the north of Orion is the constellation Gemini the Twins, with the bright stars Castor and Pollux in position on the forehead of the twins. I call this part of the sky “Orion and his gang.”
On the night of Dec. 13 and 14, the Geminid meteor shower peaks. On that night there will be a last quarter (half) moon that will white out at least some of the meteors, but the Geminids are so bright and numerous that it should still be a half way decent shooting star show. I’ll have more on the Geminids next week in Starwatch.
Instructions for sky map
To use this map, cut it out and attach it to a stiff backing. Hold it over your head and line up the compass points on the map’s horizon to the actual direction you’re facing. East and West on this map are not backwards. This is not a misprint. I guarantee that when you hold this map over your head, east and west will be in their proper positions. Also, use a small flashlight and attach a red piece of cloth or red construction paper over the lens of the flashlight. You won’t lose your night vision when you look at this map in red light.
(Mike Lynch writes Starwatch each week for The News-Item. If you have any astronomical questions or want Mike to write about something you’re seeing the night sky, drop Mike a line at email@example.com.)