What’s “Up” This Month – Celestial Happenings This December

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Our resident astronomer James Wooten is back, and he’s here to tell you what to look up for this month! From meteor showers to solar events, December is shaping up to be an exciting end of the year. And  of course he will give you the update on when and where to find your favorite constellations and planets. You can impress your date this December with your stellar knowledge of the night sky! (By the way, Saturday night star gazing at the George Observatory is a great place to take a date) So sit back and put your astronomer hat on, because here’s the low-down on the high up!

 

Moon Phases in December 2016:

Moon Phases

1st Quarter: December 7, 3:03am Full: December 13, 6:06pm 3rd Quarter: December 20, 7:56pm New: December 29, 12:53am

 

What are the Planets Up to this Month?

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Venus is a little higher in the evening sky this month. Look low in the west southwest in evening twilight. Venus noticeably approaches Mars more than in previous months. 

Mars is now in the southwest at dusk. Mars continues to fade each night as Earth leaves it farther and farther behind.

Mercury is visible just after sunset this month. Face west in twilight, and look low in the sky over the point where the Sun set, especially around the 11th.  Mercury isn’t as brilliant as Venus, but it easily outshines the stars near it in the sky, so it’s not too hard to find. 

Jupiter is much higher in the morning sky this month. Look in the south southeast at dawn now, and more towards due south by month’s end.  

Saturn  is behind the Sun and out of sight this month.

The Summer Triangle sets in the west.  Watch for the Great Square of Pegasus almost overhead at dusk now and in the west by Christmas. Taurus, the Bull rises in the east.  Look for the Pleiades star cluster above reddish Aldebaran. Dazzling Orion, the Hunter rises shortly after dusk (by month’s end, it is already up at dusk). As Orion enters the evening sky, we transition from the relatively dim evening skies of autumn to the brilliant stars of winter. We are beginning to face away from the center of the galaxy, looking at stars behind us in our own part of our galaxy (the Orion Spur). 

December Constellation Map

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This star map shows the Houston sky at 8 pm CST on December 1, 7 pm CST on December 15, and dusk on December 31.  To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom.

The Summer Triangle sets in the west. Watch for the Great Square of Pegasus almost overhead at dusk now and in the west by Christmas. Taurus, the Bull rises in the east.  Look for the Pleiades star cluster above reddish Aldebaran. Dazzling Orion, the Hunter rises shortly after dusk (by month’s end, it is already up at dusk). As Orion enters the evening sky, we transition from the relatively dim evening skies of autumn to the brilliant stars of winter. We are beginning to face away from the center of the galaxy, looking at stars behind us in our own part of our galaxy (the Orion Spur).

Celestial Happenings to Watch for this month:

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Photot courtesy of Wikimedia

Geminid Meteor Shower

The Geminid meteor shower peaks every year around mid-December.  This year, it’s the night of December 13-14 (although they’re active from December 4-17).  Unfortunately, this year we have a full moon on that night, which will hide most meteors. 

Winter Solstice

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By Jecowa at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

At 4:44 am on Wednesday, December 21, the Sun will appear overhead as seen from the Tropic of Capricorn, the farthest point south where this is possible. That’s because Earth’s North Pole is tilted as far as possible away from the Sun at that time. That’s why this is our winter solstice, the day when we have more night and less daylight than any other.  Below the equator, this is the summer solstice because the South Pole is tilted towards the Sun as much as possible.

You will notice, however, that sunset on New Year’s Eve is up to ten minutes later than on December 1.  Why, if the 31st is closer to the solstice?  Although the shortest day (least daylight) occurs on December 21, the earliest sunset occurs for us about December 1.  This is because the Sun’s apparent position in our sky varies like a sine wave; there is little difference in the Sun’s apparent height for about a month before and after the solstice.  Due to Earth’s tilt, the Sun does indeed take a shorter, lower path across the sky on December 21 than on December 1, but only by about 1.5 degrees (your pinky at arm’s length blocks one degree).  Meanwhile, Earth is slightly accelerating as it approaches perihelion just after the new year.  This makes both sunrise and sunset happen a little earlier each night during December.  Near the solstice, this small effect can dominate.  Since most of us sleep through sunrise and watch sunset, days will seem to lengthen from December 1-21 when they are in fact still getting shorter. 

George Observatory

Come see us Saturday nights at the George Observatory!  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. 

Clear Skies!

Do you have any astronomy questions or would like email updates on current events in the sky, at the planetarium, and at George Observatory?  If so, send us an email to astroinfo@hmns.org.

Star Map: September 2016

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Star Map September 2016

Venus is a little higher in the evening sky this month.    Look low in the west in evening twilight.

 

Mars and Saturn are now in the southwest at dusk. 

 

Mars continues to fade each night as Earth leaves it farther and farther behind.  Also, it moves faster than Saturn against the background stars, so you can watch Mars pull away from Saturn this month.   

 

Jupiter is behind the Sun and out of sight this month.  Conjunction (Jupiter directly behind the Sun) is on September 26.  

 

The Big Dipper is to the left of the North Star, with its handle pointing up.  From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ in the west at dusk. 

 

Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the southwest, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to its left.  Saturn is right above Antares.  The Summer Triangle is almost overhead.  The stars of summer are here.  Meanwhile, the Great Square of Pegasus is high in the east at dusk, and is fully risen by month’s end.  Autumn is here.

 

Moon Phases in September 2016:

 

New 1st quarter Sept. 1, 4:03 am; Sept. 30, 7:11pm        

 

  1st Quarter  1st quarter1

September 9, 6:49 am       

 

  Full   full

September 16, 2:05 pm        

 

3rd Quarter3rd quarter

 September 23, 4:56 am  

 

The New Moon of September 1 blocks the Sun, causing an eclipse.  However, the Moon is too far away at the time to block the Sun completely, resulting in an annular rather than total eclipse.  Further, the whole event happens at night for us and is visible only in Africa. 

 

At 9:21 a.m. CDT on Thursday, September 22, the Sun is directly overhead as seen from the equator.  This marks the Autumnal Equinox, the ‘official’ start of fall.  On this date, everyone on earth has the same amount of daylight and night.  After this date, night becomes longer than day for us in the northern hemisphere.  Below the equator, day now becomes longer than night, and spring begins. 

 

This makes September one of the best months to observe an interesting effect.  You may have noticed that the spot where the Sun sets on the horizon varies day to day.  This variation is greatest, however, near the equinoxes in March and September.  Therefore, if you watch the Sun set each evening you can this month, the change will be quite noticeable. 

 

Come see us Saturday nights at the George Observatory!  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. 

 

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       This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 pm CDT on September 1, 9 pm CDT on September 15, and 8 pm CDT on September 30.  To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom.

 

The Summer Triangle is overhead.  This consists of the brightest stars in Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila.  Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the southwest, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to his left.  From the Big Dipper’s handle, ‘arc to Arcturus’ in the west.  The Great Square of Pegasus is high in the east at dusk, heralding the coming autumn. 

You can learn more about the stars over Texas by visiting the Burke Baker Planetarium, here at HMNS. 

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Mars and Jupiter Shine Bright

This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 pm CDT on July 1, 9 pm CDT on July 15, and dusk on July 31.  To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. The Summer Triangle is high in the east.  This consists of the brightest stars in Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila.  Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the south, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to his left.  Leo, the Lion, sets in the west with Jupiter.  From the Big Dipper’s handle, ‘arc to Arcturus’ and ‘speed on to Spica’ in the southwest.  Mars and Saturn remain in the south at dusk.

This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 pm CDT on July 1, 9 pm CDT on July 15, and dusk on July 31. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom.
The Summer Triangle is high in the east. This consists of the brightest stars in Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila. Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the south, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to his left. Leo, the Lion, sets in the west with Jupiter. From the Big Dipper’s handle, ‘arc to Arcturus’ and ‘speed on to Spica’ in the southwest. Mars and Saturn remain in the south at dusk.

Jupiter is now in the west at dusk. It outshines all stars we ever see at night, so you can’t miss it.

Mars and Saturn are now in the south at dusk. As you watch them, Mars is to the right and is much brighter.

Although Mars continues to fade each night as Earth leaves it farther and farther behind, this month Mars still outshines all of the stars and even rivals Jupiter in brightness! By the end of the month, Mars begins to approach Saturn.

Venus is lost in the Sun’s glare and out of sight all month.

The Big Dipper is above the North Star, with its handle pointing up. From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’; those stars are in the west at dusk. Leo, the Lion, is also in the west at dusk.

Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the south, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to its left. Saturn is right above Antares. The Summer Triangle has fully risen in the east. The stars of summer are here.

Moon Phases
Moon Phases in July 2016:

New July 4, 6:01 a.m.

1st Quarter July 11, 7:52 p.m.

Full July 19, 5:57 p.m.

Last Quarter July 26, 6:00 p.m.

At 11:00 am on Monday, July 4, Earth is at aphelion. This means that on this date Earth is as far from the Sun as it will get this year. But all of us can feel how hot and sticky it is outside now, compared to January, when Earth was at its closest. This is because the Earth’s orbit is almost a circle; the difference between closest and farthest distance from the Sun is small. Indeed, Earth is only 1.6% farther than average from the Sun on July 4. The effect of Earth’s 23.5 degree tilt easily dominates the tiny effect of Earth’s varying distance from the Sun.

Also on July 4, the Juno spacecraft enters Jupiter orbit. For just over a year and a half, Juno will execute 37 orbits of Jupiter before a controlled orbit into Jupiter in February 2018. The spacecraft is designed to explore the inner composition of Jupiter, giving more information about what’s far beneath the cloud layers we see.

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. As of now, however, George is closed while Brazos Bend State park dries out from yet another round of floods on the Brazos River. The park could reopen as early as July 12.

Clear Skies!

James G. Wooten
Planetarium Astronomer
Houston Museum of Natural Science

Now Open: The Burke Baker Planetarium, Best in the World

It only takes a few seconds of a stellar light show in this newly-renovated facility to recognize why the Houston Museum of Natural Science is calling the Burke Baker Planetarium “the best and brightest in the world.” The clarity, the detail, the movement, the science, the imagery, all come together to create one of the most spectacular visions of the night sky you’ve ever seen, inside or outside the city. Part teaching tool, part adventure, a show at the planetarium is nothing short of magic.

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A seat in the Burke Baker Planetarium is like a seat on the edge of space.

The power of the visual feast is due to the combined renovations of the theater and the projection system. With the specialized dome in place, the Digistar 5 laser projection system now has a surface on which to display its full potential. Ten Sony projectors that shoot across the dome at different angles combine to create one giant 360-degree image with more than 50 million unique pixels, or twice the size of the largest movie theaters. Laser projection means bright, vibrant color, and a frame rate of 60 frames per second means this system displays close to what the eye sees in reality looking up at the night sky. The only thing is that this picture is clearer.

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This projection might as well be a photograph of deep space from the Hubble Telescope!

Take a look at some of the shots of the theater we took during today’s grand opening demonstration for a sneak peek, but don’t hesitate to come out and see for yourself. It’s the closest you can come to flying in space without actually suiting up!

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That’s not hyperspace; that’s the dome theater!

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See the constellations like the Greeks imagined them!

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NASA Astronaut Mario Runco introduced the Burke Baker Planetarium during our grand opening event Friday. Runco did physics research on the International Space Station using toys in space. Only the Burke Baker Planetarium has views of space like Runco has seen.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the renovated Friedkin Theater. Take a look at this time-lapse video that shows how much work we put into installing the dome!