Monday, December 9, 2013

Frosty Nights this Week

Viewing the Stars and Planets in a scope this week from the backyard will be cold, so bundle up! The end of the week brings a meteor shower. Get away from city lights and head for the country. Keep warm and look up! We are going into the wave of Christmas shopping time warp. Full speed ahead and watch for turbulent Gravity drops and all the asteroids coming at you in the parking lots!

The Planet Venus (magnitude –4.9) is the brilliant "Evening Star" in the southwest during and after dusk. It's shining at its brightest for the year, and it doesn't set until more than an hour after dark. In a telescope, Venus has waned to a crescent about 25% lit and has enlarged to about 42 arcseconds tall, as it swings toward us around the Sun.

For early morning viewing you can target Mars (magnitude 1.2, in the head of Virgo) rises around 1 a.m. By dawn it's very high in the south. In a telescope Mars is still tiny and gibbous, 5.8 arcseconds wide.

The Planet Saturn (magnitude +0.6, in Libra) is low in the southeast as dawn begins to brighten. Look for it then far to the lower left of Mars and Spica, and far lower right of brighter Arcturus.

Monday, is the First-quarter Moon (exact at 10:12 a.m. EST). This evening the Moon shines just under the dim Circlet of Pisces below the Great Square of Pegasus.

Note: Our night skies may be filled with clouds this weekend!

Friday, The Geminid meteor shower should be at its peak tonight, from 9 or 10 p.m. until dawn Saturday morning. The best viewing time is after your local moonset: in the hour before the beginning of morning twilight on the 14th. But bright meteors will show even through the moonlight earlier. This year's shower begins to peak just after midnight Thursday (the early-morning hours of Friday) and lasts through dawn. Then it's back Friday night into the predawn hours of Saturday. Falling stars should be visible beginning mid-to-late evening and ending at dawn both nights. The Geminids "are specks of debris from 3200 Phaethon, which is not a comet, as you might expect, but an asteroid," says Rick Kline with the Planetary Imaging Facility at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

The moon is in its waxing phase and will be gibbous (more than half full) and up most of the night, so its light will compete with fainter meteors. Good luck this year from your backyard.