“ The only thing cooler than Saturn is a kid looking at Saturn. ” - Ed Green
Mars continues to dominate the December night sky, high overhead as the evening begins and perfectly placed for observing. It's a great time to take a telescope and share views of the red planet with friends and family who may not have seen it before.
Show them the ringed planet, too. Saturn rises in early evening and is visible for most of the night, though it doesn't get very high in the sky until after midnight. It's always a treat when Saturn returns to the evening sky, and it's especially good when you can share views of it with people who haven't seen it before. Remember the words of SJAA member Ed Greenberg at a Houge Park star party a few years ago: "The only thing cooler than Saturn is a kid looking at Saturn."
Mars is a month past opposition, but it's still fairly close and shows a nice big disk in a telescope, nearly 17 arc seconds at the beginning of December, though it will shrink noticeably by month's end.
It's been an excellent opposition so far -- subject to the usual fall weather considerations. Mars has had a lot of small dust storm activity, leading to some interesting and unusual patterns in some otherwise familiar areas of the planet. The great impact basin Hellas, in high summer and not collecting its usual hazes and frosts, has seemed much less pale than usual, with interesting dark streaks inside. More surprisingly, both polar caps have been visible at times, which isn't something we can see during most Mars oppositions. Since the weather is chancy this time of year, keep a telescope handy and grab looks when you can!
On the night of December 11th, the moon makes a close pass by Mars, less than a degree away. If you're willing to take a trip to Siberia, you can see it as an occultation, but here in San Jose it's merely a pretty sight for the naked eye, binoculars or a low-powered telescope.
Venus continues its beautiful evening apparition, giving us a brilliant "evening star" in the western sky for most of the holiday season. As December progresses it expands to a large, slim crescent and sinks lower and closer to the sun.
You can still find Uranus in the early evening sky (in Aquarius) since it doesn't set until nearly midnight. Neptune, in Capricornus, is more difficult, setting around 9pm: catch it early if you want a look. Pluto is too close to the sun to be seen this month.
Mercury gives its best early morning show of the year in the middle of December, emerging as a dawn crescent during the first week of the month and eventually reaching 21 degrees from the sun on the 12th. Jupiter, too, is visible in the morning, though it's still low when dawn breaks.
Early Christmas morning (around 5:30-6:30), the moon occults Spica as seen from most of North America, though not from San Jose. If you're visiting family and find yourself up early, it might be worth a glance. Check lunar-occultations.com for the exact times for your location, since they vary quite a bit.
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