December brings with it some heavenly gifts

December 1, 2012

Try to remember these gifts in December: Jupiter appears like a heavenly diamond, shooting stars sail overhead and the year ends by squeezing out more sunshine.

Jupiter struts a celestial swagger throughout December. The large, gaseous planet rises in the eastern night sky when the sun sets — and stays out all night long. Officially, the planet reaches opposition on Monday, which means that from Earth’s point-of-view, the sun and Jupiter are on opposite parts of the sky.

On Saturday, Jupiter reached its closest point to Earth in the past few years. At -2.8 magnitude (very bright), you’ll spot this brilliant object easily, as it traverses from east to south to west throughout the night — and throughout the month. On the night of Dec. 25, much like the night of Nov. 28, Jupiter, the gibbous moon and Aldebaran form a tight pact.

As if Jupiter weren’t enough celestial entertainment, look to the south-southeast before dawn now. Like grade-school kids lining up for the lunch march to the cafeteria, Saturn, Venus and Mercury form a morning line. Saturn (zero magnitude) is discernible at the top of the line, Venus (negative third magnitude) is very bright in the middle and Mercury holds at zero magnitude, visible above the horizon.

Each morning between now and Dec. 10, watch Saturn and Venus rapidly appear to grow apart. Before dawn Dec. 10, the waning crescent moon picks Saturn as a dance partner. And before dawn Dec. 11, the vivacious Venus slow dances with the old, skinny moon.

Meteors will catch sky-gazing attention, according to the International Meteor Organization. The Geminid meteors, seen from Dec. 4-17, peak on the night of Dec. 13-14, with possibly up to 120 meteors per hour at its best. How do you watch? Just look up. These shooting stars appear to emanate from the constellation Gemini. With no moon to worry about, watch late in the evening and into the morning hours.

Still, meteor showers can be tricky, and you could see but a few each hour.

A far less impressive Ursid meteor shower, derived from the cosmic dust of periodic Comet Tuttle, peaks Dec. 21-22. Expect maybe 10-15 meteors an hour. The fat moon sets after 2 a.m., so trotting outside after that time gives gazers a better chance.

Grab your scarf and mittens, as the winter solstice occurs Dec. 21 at 6:12 a.m., according to the U.S. Naval Observatory. Although the sun is always still, the Earth’s motion gives the appearance of the sun moving back toward the Northern Hemisphere.

From Dec. 1 through Dec. 11, Washingtonians enjoy the earliest sunsets of the year. For all 11 days, the sun officially sets at 4:46 p.m., says the observatory. On Dec. 12, sunset starts creeping back (4:47 p.m.) the other way. The latest sunrise for Washington this year is 7:27 a.m. on Dec. 31 – and we’re stuck at that time through Jan. 9. Washington gets 9 hours and 26 minutes of daylight from Dec. 20-22 — which is the least amount of daylight all year, says the observatory.

Down to Earth events:

●Dec. 3 — For Arlington’s newly reopened David M. Brown Planetarium, a benefit concert at 2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 8 p.m. Minimum donation $10. friendsoftheplanetarium.org.

●Dec. 5 —“Colliding Galaxies and Monster Black Holes,” a lecture by astronomer Laura Blecha, at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. 8 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.

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