Seeing Stars with James Wooten: December 2012

Mars remains an evening object. It is low in the southwest at dusk.

Jupiter is now up all night long. Opposition — when Earth is directly between Jupiter and the Sun and Jupiter literally rises at sundown and sets at sunup — is Dec. 3. After that date, Jupiter only gets higher and more prominent in the evening sky. Face east/northeast at dusk and look for the brightest thing there (unless the Moon is also there), as Jupiter outshines all stars we see at night.

Sky Map November 2012

Venus remains in the east at dawn, continuing a spectacular morning apparition. It now appears a little closer to the horizon each morning.

Saturn is a little higher in the morning sky this month; look for it just above the much brighter Venus. Mercury is visible for the first half of the month at dawn.  Look just under Venus.

The autumn ‘intermission’ — when few bright stars are out at dusk — is over; brilliant winter stars enter the evening skies of December. Watch dazzling Orion rise as twilight ends. He rises with his three-starred belt almost vertical, halfway between reddish Betelgeuse and bluish Rigel. Orion’s belt points up to Aldebaran in Taurus, the Bull. This winter, the Bull also contains Jupiter.

Rising with Orion and far to his left are the twin stars Castor and Pollux, marking the heads of Gemini, the Twins.  By 8 p.m. in mid-month, the two Dog Stars have joined Orion. You can find Sirius, the brightest star we ever see at night, by drawing a line from Orion’s belt towards the horizon.

Moon Phases in December 2012:
Last Quarter                  December 6, 9:32 a.m.
New                               December 13, 2:41 a.m.
1st Quarter                    December 19, 11:19 p.m.
Full                                December 28, 4:22 a.m.

At 5:12 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 21, the Sun is directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn, the farthest point south at which it can be overhead. This puts the Sun as low as possible in our daytime sky, and as high as possible in the sky for anyone in the Southern Hemisphere. This also makes daytime as short as possible for us, and as long as possible for folks “down under.” Accordingly, this moment is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Geminid Meteor Shower peaks this month, as it does every December. Along with the Perseids in August, the Geminids are one of the two most reliable meteor showers, producing on average about 100 meteors per hour. The Geminids are unique among meteor showers because they are associated not with a comet but with an asteroid, 3200 Phaethon. This means that with Geminids, we see significant activity much earlier in the night than with other showers.

Most meteor showers peak in the hours immediately before dawn. This is because what plows through the debris field is the leading edge of the Earth, and that’s the side going from night into day. Since Phaethon is an asteroid, however, debris along its orbital path forms a shallower angle to Earth’s orbital path, meaning that we begin to face into the debris field as early as 9 or 10 p.m. Meteors will seem to ‘radiate’ from the constellation Gemini, hence the name of the shower. However, they may appear anywhere in the sky.

As always, you see more meteors the farther you are from big city lights, which hide dimmer ones. Our George Observatory will be open Friday night, Dec. 14, into Saturday morning, Dec. 15, for observing this meteor shower.

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer. If you’re there, listen for my announcement.

To enjoy the stars in any weather from the comfort of the HMNS Planetarium, click here for a full schedule.

Would you like email updates on current events in the sky, at the planetarium, and at the George Observatory?  If so, send an email to astroinfo@hmns.org.

Give your family some space — outer space! — at Family Space Day this Saturday

You probably spent a lot of time with your family over the Thanksgiving holiday, and we know just what you need: SPACE!

A couple hours (or days) to yourself aren’t gonna cut it. We’re thinking this year you need some major space. Like, we’re talking outer space.

And we’ve got just the ticket.

Join HMNS at the George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park this Saturday, Dec. 1 for a day of family fun aboard the Expedition Center, where families and individuals have exclusive access to participate in real-life astronaut training that’s usually reserved for groups and field trips.

Expedition Center - CommunicationsAs astronauts for the day, child and adult participants are assigned jobs aboard the Space Station Observer. They will learn about teamwork and crisis management as they work together to solve problems on simulated space missions.

Tickets must be purchased before 5 p.m. Friday, so click here to reserve yours and see a schedule of mission times. You can also call 281-242-3055 on Saturday morning to learn about walk-in availability.

Missions are open to kids age 7 or older, and children age 7 to 9 must have an adult chaperone.

Bring the whole family and explore the George Observatory exhibits, then stay after your mission for stargazing on the George’s observation deck! Tickets to view the night sky through the George Observatory research telescopes are $5 and go on sale at 5 p.m.

Don’t miss Astronomy Day this Saturday, Oct. 20 at the George Observatory

Spend your Saturday under the stars at the George Observatory‘s annual Astronomy Day!

This family-friendly event is free with park admission to beautiful Brazos Bend State Park ($7, free for kids 12 and under), and goes from 3 p.m. all the way until 10 p.m., when the night sky comes alive.

George ObservatoryDozens of telescopes — including the George’s large domed research telescopes — will be available to the public for viewing star clusters, distant planets and galaxies.

Among the activities offered are simulated space missions aboard our Expedition Center (the first such historic center in the nation), astronomy presentations, children’s crafts, a guided tour of the constellations on our observatory deck, and more.

This fabulous event only comes once a year, so don’t miss it! Meet the dozens of local astronomy clubs and NASA organizations that come together to organize Astronomy Day and have a dazzling day (and night!) under the stars.

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: October 2012

Mars remains an evening object. It is low in the southwest at dusk.

Jupiter is high in the morning sky this month. Look high in the south/southwest at dawn for the object, which outshines all stars in that direction. Jupiter is also becoming a late evening object; it rises by 10:40 p.m. on October 1st and by 8:40 p.m. on the 31st.

Seeing Stars with James WootenVenus remains high in the east at dawn, continuing a spectacular morning apparition.

Saturn drops into the glare of the setting Sun this month, and is thus out of sight.  On October 25, Saturn is in line with the Sun, or at conjunction.

Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, sets in the southwest during twilight, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to its upper left. Meanwhile, the Summer Triangle is virtually overhead. As the stars of summer shift to the west, those of autumn fill the eastern sky.   Watch the Great Square of Pegasus rise in the east. Note that we look towards the center of our galaxy when we face between Scorpius and Sagittarius. When facing the Great Square, or especially south and east of that, we face out of the plane of our galaxy, a direction where there are fewer bright stars. That’s why the large expanse of sky rising under Pegasus seems devoid of bright stars.

For this reason, ancient Babylonians designated this broad area of sky as the ‘Celestial Sea’, and filled it with watery constellations. The only bright star in this whole expanse of our sky is Fomalhaut in the southeast, which marks the mouth of the Southern Fish.  Between the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius and Jupiter (in Taurus, the Bull), are dim zodiacal constellations including Capricornus, the Sea Goat; Aquarius, the Water Carrier; and Pisces, the Fish. The giant sea monster Cetus rises under Pisces.

Moon Phases in October 2012:

Last Quarter                  October 8, 2:33 am
New                               October 15, 7:02 am
1st Quarter                    October 21, 10:33 pm
Full                                 October 29, 2:49 pm

Saturday, October 20, is our annual Astronomy Day at George Observatory, which lasts from 3 to 10 p.m. at our observatory in Brazos Bend State Park. Click here for a full list of activities.

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer. If you’re there, listen for my announcement.

To enjoy the stars in any weather from the comfort of the HMNS Planetarium, click here for a full schedule.

Would you like email updates on current events in the sky, at the planetarium, and at the George Observatory?  If so, send an email to astroinfo@hmns.org.