Status Report

The Sky This Week 2003 December 5 – December 12

By SpaceRef Editor
December 8, 2003
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The Moon brightens the night skies this week. The Full Moon Before Yule occurs on the 8th at 3:37 pm Eastern Standard Time. Watch Luna wend her way through the bright stars of the Great Winter Circle over the course of the week. On the 6th she lies near the Pleiades star cluster, and on the nights of the 9th and the 10th you can see her keeping company with Saturn.

This weekend marks the beginning of the winter solstice phenomenon. While the solstice itself doesn’t occur for another two weeks, we’ll see the earliest sunset of the year on the evening of December 7th, when the Sun disappears below the horizon at 4:48 pm EST in Washington. By the time the solstice occurs, sunset will be some 4 minutes later. However, the time of latest sunrise won’t occur until January 8th, so the shortest length of day still occurs on the date of the solstice itself, December 21st.

The early evening sky plays host to the two planets that orbit the Sun inside the orbit of the Earth. Venus and Mercury begin the week about seven degrees apart, with Mercury appearing below and to the right of the brilliant Venus. Mercury reaches greatest elongation east of the Sun on the evening of the 8th and remains well-placed for viewing throughout the week, but the separation between the fleet planet and his dazzling consort increases to about nine degrees by week’s end. Start looking for Mercury about 15 minutes after sunset on the next clear evening.

Mars is now keeping a steady pace against the relentless Sun. The red planet is steadily falling farther behind the earth, and hence he is growing smaller in telescope eyepieces and growing gradually dimmer to the naked eye. Nevertheless, he is still one of the most prominent objects in the evening sky and will continue to be so until well into the new year. By the end of the month a bevy of spacecraft will approach his ruddy surface, and we should be hearing lots of news from Mars during the holiday season.

Saturn is now rising between 6:30 and 7:00 pm, and by 9:00 he’s well up in the east and ready for telescopic viewing. I had my first good look at him for the current apparition through a telescope owned by a member of the San Diego Astronomy Association, and the view has made me all but forget Mars. There is nothing quite like the view of Saturn set in the middle of a bevy of star-like moons to make you feel that you are witnessing a truly exotic, far-off place.

And if Saturn weren’t enough enticement, late-night skywatchers can now catch Jupiter in the wee hours. By the end of the week the giant planet rises just before midnight, so it won’t be long before he starts attracting the attention of evening observers.

For information on BRIGHT SATELLITES passing over Washington, DC this week, click

For more information eclipses, click

For more information on meteor showers, click

For more information on observable comets, click

For pictures of Comet Hale-Bopp, click

For more information on the digital planet pictures on this page, click

SpaceRef staff editor.