By Peter Becker
With First Quarter Moon this Thursday December 20 and Full Moon on the 28th, we again have the joy of basking in the natural moonlight that brightens our winter landscapes. With the Moon high up, the night sky is the brightest it can be all year, minus the all-too eager help from humankind bent on turning night into day.
A nice coating of snow would be just right to reflect the moonlight. The early winter Moon gets so high in the sky- taking the place of the Sun as seen around noon in June. It is well worth getting away from streetlights and enjoy the night as it was meant to be. Try taking your favorite newspaper out under the frigid, winter Moon! You can actually read the headlines without even a flashlight!
Just don't let the neighbors see you.
Fortunately the brighter stars are never washed out by moonlight- or even light pollution, nor are the bright planets. Solstice occurs on the 21st marking the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere and summer’s start in the Southern Hemisphere. With the North Pole tipped back the farthest from the Sun, we in mid-northern climes have the opportunity to appreciate the wonders of six-pointed snowflakes cascading onto the landscape, the beauty of the low noon-day Sun casting long shadows, and during those marvelously long starry nights, witnessing the parade of winter stars with Orion as the Grand Marshall.
The height of winter of course is still beyond the bend- after the holidays. In fact, it takes until mid-February before you can see Orion due south at 8 p.m. In mid-December Orion is due south close to 12 midnight.
Ruling the early winter night this year, aside from the Moon is the brilliant planet Jupiter. You can see it high in the east the next clear evening. How appropriate, with Christmas so near, to think of the Christmas Star so artistically portrayed on many a card.
The Christmas Star is not thought to have been Jupiter or even the bright planet Venus. Some of course dismiss it as legend. Others believe it was a supernatural event, or possibly a supernova or unusually close conjunction of bright planets. Whatever it was, it attracted some wise star watchers.
A star chart of the winter sky, available online or in astronomy field books likely found in your local public library, will aid you in identifying the wonderful stars above. Winter evenings are packed with bright stars, more than at any time of year. Orion has bright red Beteleguse and bright blue- white Rigel. You will also see bright orange Aldebaran, brilliant yellow Capella, the bright stars Castor and Pollux marking the heads of Gemini the Twins, the bright compact star cluster The Pleiades, and the dog stars, bright yellow Procyon and gloriously bright blue-white Sirius. All of these are coming up in the east, with Jupiter and stand out despite the Moon!
Binoculars will always aid your view. Enjoy scanning the sky at any time of year. Winter is especially nice in that you can step outside early in the evening to enjoy the stars. Just dress warm!
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a belated Happy Hanukkah to all.
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Keep looking up!