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A Guide to the Night Sky: December 2016

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A Guide to the Night Sky
December 2016 

By Tre Gibbs, LAAS

The Holiday Season is in full swing!  In addition to the annual activity happening down here on Earth, there is plenty going on above us in our night skies,  This month on the 21st at 2:37 am PST, we welcome the return of Winter in the northern hemisphere. On this day, the sun will rise at it’s southern most point along the eastern horizon, travel the sky along the southern most path and finally set at it’s southern most point on the western horizon. To us here on Earth, it typically marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. With the sun so low and so far south in the sky, the light looks different, the shadows are long - it looks and feels like winter. 

The word Solstice is Latin for “stand still”.  If you were to watch the sunset everyday throughout the year, you would notice that it moves from south to north and vice versa in a continuous cycle - from it’s southern most point on the horizon (winter solstice) to the northern most point on the horizon (the summer solstice). As the sun begins to reach it’s most northern or southern point, it appears to slow down and come to a “stand still “ before it starts heading the opposite direction. This is a solstice.

This month’s full moon, known as the Full Cold moon, happens at 4:07 pm on Tuesday, December 13th.  The Full Cold Moon signified winter’s tightening grip as the nights grow increasingly longer and colder. While spectacular and bright, the full moon is not the only time Earth’s own natural satellite makes an impression. Early in the month, during the evening twilight hours on December 2, look low in the southwest for a sliver of a waxing crescent moon directly to the right of the brilliantly glowing planet Venus.  If you miss it on December 2nd, just wait till December 3rd, when a slightly thicker waxing crescent moon will be directly above the brilliant planet Venus. Honestly - Venus is so bright, it almost looks like a helicopter or airplane coming directly toward you. In fact, after the Sun and Moon, Venus is the brightest object in the sky.  The following night, December 4th, look for an even larger crescent moon just to the right of pinkish Mars!

Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, continues to be an early riser these day. At the beginning in the month, Jupiter rises in the east around 3:30 am, but by month’s end Jupiter rises almost a full two hours earlier, due to Earth’s continual orbit around the sun. Every month, Jupiter will rise earlier and earlier and eventually appear, by next Spring, in our night sky at a much more reasonable time for viewing, around 7:30pm.

Have a wonderful and safe Holiday Season everyone!  See you in 2017!