Status Report

The Sky This Week 2003 December 19 – December 26

By SpaceRef Editor
December 23, 2003
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The Moon returns to the evening skies by the end of the week, with New Moon occurring on the 23rd at 4:43 am Eastern Standard Time. On Christmas Night Luna’s slender crescent may be see less than five degrees below and to the left of brilliant Venus, the very bright star-like object that’s currently gracing the western horizon at dusk.

The Winter Solstice arrives on the 22nd at 2:04 am EST. At this time the center of the Sun’s disc reaches its most southerly excursion in the sky, and the astronomical season of winter begins. Our winter holiday celebrations all have ancient roots in the observation of this event, when people had more than a passing interest in the gradual lengthening of the days. Here in Washington we experience nine-and-a-half hours of daylight on this date. Take heart, though, because by the end of the year we’ll have a whopping four minutes more!

The dazzling planet Venus graces the early evening skies as soon as old Sol retires for the long winter night. She stands out brilliantly against the deepening twilight, and by the week’s end she sets almost an hour after the end of evening twilight. The slender crescent Moon pays her a visit on the evening of the 25th. She will continue to dominate the frosty skies through the winter, and she will remain a fixture in the west for the first half of next year.

Mars continues to shine like a glowing ember in the evening sky, glowing at about zero magnitude among the third magnitude stars of Aquarius and Pisces. On Christmas Day the European Beagle 2 lander is scheduled to bounce down on the planet’s distant rusty plains. Conditions there might be less than ideal, though. Earth based amateur astronomers have detected the beginning stages of what could develop into a planet-circling dust storm. Even though Mars’ ruddy disc is now less than half the apparent size it was last summer, this observation only goes to prove that amateurs can and do still make significant contributions to the study of our neighbor worlds.

Saturn is now swinging into prime viewing time. The ringed planet reaches opposition on New Year’s Eve, and even now it’s an easy object to locate and observe once the sky gets dark. Saturn’s rings are tilted at close to their maximum to our line of sight, and the planet is also close to its perihelion point, so we have the best view we’ve had in the last 30 years. I suspect a number of newly-equipped astronomers will be testing their holiday telescopes on the planet’s distant cream-colored clouds and spectacular rings.

And if you’re up really late helping Santa with those last-minute Christmas Eve gifts, take a look at bright Jupiter before you retire for the night. The giant planet is there to greet you in the east, rising late among the leafless branches of the trees.

SpaceRef staff editor.