Skywatch: Mars lights up in early December and the Geminids peak in the middle of the month

Skywatch: Mars lights up in early December and the Geminids peak in the middle of the month

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December skies offer casual skywatchers planetary joy and shooting-star delights.

Earththe neighboring planet March brightens due to proximity, but the planet reaches opposition on December 8.

Our reddish neighbor is about 50 million kilometers from Earth on December 1, according to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, and a week later, on December 8, Mars will face Earth. Sun from our terrestrial perspective, according to the US Naval Observatory. Think of the opposition as a “full March”. Essentially, this means that Mars will be bright and beautiful at around magnitude -1.9 in early December.

Mars rises in the east, while the sun sets in the west – and you can find it lounging near the constellation’s horns Bull the bull.

As Mars opposition officially occurs on December 8, you will see the Red Planet quite close to the moon the evening of December 7. The western United States will see the full moon occult (block) Mars. The DC area will see Mars appear to be latching onto the moon.

Later in December, our favorite red planet loses some brightness, dropping to -1.4 magnitude (bright) by the end of the month, according to the observatory.

On December 1, find the first quarter moon cuddled near Jupiterthat seems to hang around the constellation Pisces in the southeast sky after dusk. The large gaseous planet is magnitude -2.6, very bright. Catch Jupiter all month. The magnifying moon also approaches Jupiter on December 28, passing the planet on December 29.

As the sky darkens after dusk, find Saturn in the south-southwest preparing for bed. The ringed planet stands in the constellation Capricorn at +0.7 magnitude, a bit faint in urban conditions.

In mid-December, catch the mischievous pals Mercury and Venus in the southwest sky as dusk turns to night. They are very low on the horizon. Fleet Mercury will be harder to see at magnitude -0.6 (bright), but Venus will be bright at magnitude -3.9 (unusually bright). Venus has been hiding near the sun since October and will ascend the evening skies in January.

The Geminid meteor shower peaks on December 13 and 14, and astronomers estimate 150 per hour late in the evening, according to the American Meteor Society (amsmeteors.org). You won’t see them all, but if the sky is clear and you avoid the streetlights, you may catch several. A waning gibbous moon rises before 10 p.m. and can wash out some meteors.

Autumn gives way to winter, like December solstice ushers in the change of season on December 21, according to the observatory. On this date, Washington officially gets 9 hours 26 minutes of daylight, according to the observatory, creating what is called the shortest day of the year. We will see a little more sun the next day.

* December 2 — “The latest news on the great dinosaur extinction”, a lecture by Sean Gulick, professor-researcher at the University of Texas at Austin. Find out how an asteroid impact killed dinosaurs. Hosted by PSW Science. 8 p.m., Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club, 2121 Massachusetts Ave. NW to DC Information: pswscience.org.

* December 4 — Admire the starry late fall sky through telescopes provided by members of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (NOVAC). At the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum, Chantilly, Va. (GPS: 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway.) Meet at the museum bus parking lot, 5-7 p.m. Information: airandspace.si.edu.

* December 10 — The latest findings from the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (Chile) and the James Webb Space Telescope, a lecture by National Science Foundation astrophysicist Joe Pesce. During the regular meeting (online only) of the Astronomers of the National Capital. 7:30 p.m. To access it, visit: capitalastronomers.org.

* December 11 — “Tick, Tick, Tick: Pulsating Star, How We Wonder What You Are”, a talk by astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered the first radio pulsar in 1967. While Burnell will give a virtual talk, members and guests are welcome in person at the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club Meeting, Room 3301, Exploratory Hall, George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. 1:30-3:30 p.m. Info: novac.com.

* December 16 — “Back to the Moon to Stay: Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium,” a lecture by planetary geologist Brett Denevi and physicist Wesley Fuhrman, both of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Hosted by PSW Science. 8 p.m., Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club, 2121 Massachusetts Ave. NW to DC Information: pswscience.org.

* December 17 — “Astronomy for All” at Sky Meadows State Park in Fauquier County, Virginia, with members of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club guiding you through the sky. 4:30-7:30 p.m. GPS: 11012 Edmonds Lane, Delaplane, Va., 20144. Info: Novac.com. Park fee: $10.

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