The Sky Above You – December 2020
By Duncan Lunan
The Moon will be Full on December 30th, and it will be New on December 14th. On December 14th there will be a total solar eclipse along a track from the South Pacific, across Chile and Argentina and on into the South Atlantic. The winter solstice is on December 21st, also the date of a close conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.
The planet Mercury is out of view in December, and in superior conjunction beyond the Sun on December 20th.
Venus remains brilliant in the morning sky, rising at 5.30 a.m. in December and passing above Antares in Scorpius on December 24th, but getting too near the Sun to be visible by the end of the month. The Moon is near Venus on 12th December. Europe’s Solar Orbiter will fly past Venus in December, changing its orbit to fly over the poles of the Sun.
Mars is in Pisces, and sets about 2.30 a.m. in early December, midnight by mid-month. The Moon is near Mars on the night of 23rd December.
Jupiter in Sagittarius sets at 6.30 p.m. in December, very close to Saturn on the 21st, in their first conjunction for 20 years. The Moon is near Jupiter on December 17th.
Saturn remains close to Jupiter all month, only 6 arcminutes apart (one-fifth of the Moon’s apparent diameter, in the same field of view through a telescope) on December 21st. - the closest conjunction between the two planets for 397 years, since June 1623, and the closest to come until 2080. The Moon is near Saturn on December 17th, both setting in early evening with Jupiter.
Uranus is in Aries, and sets about 4 a.m. in December, near the Moon on December 24th.
Neptune in Aquarius sets around 11 p.m. in December, still moving retrograde (east to west) after being passed by the Earth at opposition in mid-September. The Moon appears near Neptune on December 20th.
The Geminid meteors from asteroid Phaeton peak on the night of 13-14th December, best from 1 a.m. onwards, and this year they will not be spoiled by moonlight. The much smaller Ursid shower peaks on the morning of December 22nd. Quadrantid meteors can be seen from December 28th to 10th January, with the peak around January 3rd.
Duncan Lunan’s latest books “From the Moon to the Stars” and “The Other Side of the Interface”, collections of his space travel stories, old and new, illustrated by Sydney Jordan, are now available on Amazon or through booksellers; details of them and his other books are on Duncan’s website, www.duncanlunan.com.
The Sky Above You
By Duncan Lunan
About this Column
I began writing this column in early 1983 at the suggestion of the late Chris Boyce. At that time the Post Office would allow 1000 free mailings to start a new business, just under the number of small press newspapers in the UK at the time. I printed a flyer with the help of John Braithwaite (of Braithwaite Telescopes) offering a three-part column for £5, with the sky this month, a series of articles for beginners, and a monthly news feature. The column ran from May 1983 to May 1993 in various newspapers and magazines, but never in more than five outlets at a time, although every one of those 1000-plus papers would have included an astrology column. Since then it’s appeared sporadically in a range of publications including The Southsider in Glasgow and the Dalyan Courier in Turkey, but most often, normally three times per year, in Jeff Hawke’s Cosmos from the first issue in March 2003 until the last in January 2018. It continues to appear monthly in Troon's Going Out and Orkney News. Enquries from other outlets welcomed!
The monthly maps for the column were drawn for me by Jim Barker, based on similar, uncredited ones in Dr. Leon Hausman’s “Astronomy Handbook” (Fawcett Publications, 1956). Jim had to redraw or elongate several of them because they were drawn for mid-US latitudes, about 40 degrees North, making them usable over most of the northern hemisphere. The biggest change needed was in November when only Dubhe, Merak and Megrez of the Big Dipper, as the US version called it, were visible at that latitude. In the UK, all the stars of the Plough are circumpolar, always above the horizon. We decided to keep an insert in the January map showing the position of M42, the Great Nebula in the Sword of Orion, and for that reason, to stick with the set time of 9 p.m., (10 p.m. BST in summer), although in Scotland the sky isn’t dark then during June and July.
To use the maps in theory you should hold them overhead, aligning the North edge to true north, marked by Polaris and indicated by Dubhe and Merak, the Pointers. It’s more practical to hold the map in front of you when looking south and then rotate it as you face east, south and west. Some readers are confused because east is on the left, opposite to terrestrial maps, but that’s because they’re the other way up. When you’re facing south and looking at the sky, east is on your left.
The star patterns are the same for each month of each year, and only the positions of the planets change. (“Astronomy Handbook” accidentally shows Saturn in Virgo during May, showing that the maps weren’t originally drawn for the Hausman book.) Consequently regular readers for a year will by then have built up a complete set of twelve.