This Week's Sky at a Glance
Some daily events in the changing sky for December 10 17
Saturday, December 11
Sunday, December 12
Tuesday, December 14
Don't give up on the Geminid meteors even though we're past the 13th! The shower continues at reduced rates for at least a couple days.
Wednesday, December 15
Thursday, December 16
Friday, December 17
Saturday, December 18
Sky at a Glance is now an iPhone app! Put S&T SkyWeek on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch and get the above listings anytime, anywhere with interactive sky maps! Tap a button to see the scene described, customized for your location worldwide. From there you can scroll the view all around the sky, zoom in or out, change to any time or date, and turn on animation. Go to Apple's iTunes store from your device and buy S&T SkyWeek just 99 cents!
Want to become a better amateur astronomer? Learn your way around the constellations. They're the key to locating everything fainter and deeper to hunt with binoculars or a telescope.
For an easy-to-use constellation guide covering the whole evening sky, use the big monthly map in the center of each issue of Sky & Telescope, the essential magazine of astronomy. Or download our free Getting Started in Astronomy booklet (which only has bimonthly maps).
Once you get a telescope, to put it to good use you must have a detailed, large-scale sky atlas (set of charts). The standards are the Pocket Sky Atlas, which shows stars to magnitude 7.6; the larger Sky Atlas 2000.0 (stars to magnitude 8.5); and the even larger and deeper Uranometria 2000.0 (stars to magnitude 9.75). And read how to use your charts effectively.
You'll also want a good deep-sky guidebook, such as Sky Atlas 2000.0 Companion by Strong and Sinnott, or the more detailed and descriptive Night Sky Observer's Guide by Kepple and Sanner, or the classic if dated Burnham's Celestial Handbook.
Can a computerized telescope take their place? I don't think so not for beginners, anyway, and especially not on mounts that are less than top-quality mechanically. As Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer say in their Backyard Astronomer's Guide, "A full appreciation of the universe cannot come without developing the skills to find things in the sky and understanding how the sky works. This knowledge comes only by spending time under the stars with star maps in hand."
This Week's Planet Roundup
Mercury is fading rapidly and dropping of sight into the sunset.
Venus (magnitude 4.8) blazes in the southeast before and during dawn. It's now at its greatest height as the "Morning Star." In fact Venus rises some two hours before the first glimmer of dawn (for skywatchers at mid-northern latitudes), a weird UFO of a thing in the east-southeast. Look for fainter Spica well to Venus's upper right, and for Saturn above Spica. Even farther to Venus's upper left is Arcturus.
Mars (magnitude +1.3) is deep in bright evening twilight near Mercury. They appear closest, 1° apart, on Monday the 13th as shown near the top of this page. Try sweeping for them with binoculars or a wide-field telescope soon after sunset. Good luck.
Jupiter (magnitude 2.5, at the Pisces-Aquarius border) shines in the south to southwest during evening, the brightest starlike point in the sky.
In a telescope it has shrunk to 41 arcseconds wide. Jupiter's missing South Equatorial Belt continues re-forming, as dark markings spread east and west around the planet from the storm spot that broke out in the SEB's latitude a month ago. That original outbreak site transits Jupiter's central meridian about 3 hours and 40 minutes after the Great Red Spot.
As for the Great Red Spot, it's near System II longitude 157°. Assuming it stays there, here's a list to print out of all the Great Red Spot's predicted transit times for the rest of this observing season.
Saturn (magnitude +0.8, in Virgo) rises around 1 or 2 a.m. and is well up the southeast before and during dawn, far upper right of brilliant Venus. Don't confuse it with Spica below it.
In a telescope, see if you can detect the new white storm known as the North Electrostatic Disturbance, seen with dramatic clarity in the image below. Visually the spot will be much harder to see. The best time to observe Saturn with a telescope is during early dawn, when it's as high as possible. Saturn's rings have widened to 10° from edge-on.
Uranus (magnitude 5.8) is 2° east of Jupiter.
Neptune (magnitude 7.9, in Capricornus) is still up in the southwest right after dark. It shares the same telescopic field with 5th-magnuitude Mu Capricorni. See our finder charts for Uranus and Neptune online or, with article, in the September Sky & Telescope, page 56.
All descriptions that relate to your horizon including the words up, down, right, and left are written for the world's mid-northern latitudes. Descriptions that also depend on longitude (mainly Moon positions) are for North America. Eastern Standard Time (EST) equals Universal Time (also known as UT, UTC, or GMT) minus 5 hours.
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