December is, as always, an action-packed viewing experience full of discovery and adventure for all Yukon amateur astronomers. There are dazzling delights for anyone with binoculars or a telescope and the inclination to look up. All we need now is some clear transparent night skies.
November’s weather had proved to be so cloudy that we did not have a single Saturday evening with clear skies for viewing. We had been forced to get quick peeks during weeknights; even those had been few and far between.
That gave us much-needed time to get our telescopes and gear ready to face another frosty Yukon winter.
Now that all our gear is winterized and ready, so are we. The only thing missing is clear skies. So what makes December such an awesome month for viewing those amazing Yukon Night Skies? First of all, winter night skies are the clearest and hold many easily seen cosmic treasures and happenings.
Starting with a double occultation: on Wednesday Dec. 2, in the early evening around 6 p.m., Jupiter’s moon will pass in front of Europa. This event can be seen with binoculars, but is best viewed at high power through a telescope.
This event is over in five minutes, so stay alert. An eight-inch reflector or a four-inch refractor should show the shadow of one of Jupiter’s moons crossing another right over the planet’s cloud bands. It should prove quite interesting, indeed. There is also a full moon in the morning sky.
On Thursday Dec. 3, Mars is close enough to observe faint surface details like the polar caps, even in a four-and-a-half-inch reflector. Mars can be found high in the eastern night sky right after dark around 8 p.m. in the constellation of Cancer the Crab. Mars is easily identified by its deep-red ruddy colour; there is nothing in that region of space that is that colour or as bright.
Sunday Dec. 6, the moon passes Mars in the early-evening skies around 7 p.m. You will need an observing sight with a clear, unobstructed view to the east as they will be close to the horizon. This will make for an excellent photo opportunity.
Tuesday Dec. 8, the last quarter moon offers plenty of excellent viewing opportunities to anyone with a telescope or a pair of binoculars.
Sunday Dec. 13 is the Geminid Meteor Shower. Meteor showers are always best viewed with the unaided eye – no binoculars or telescopes required. The meteor’s showers peak intensity (when the most meteors can be seen) is conveniently timed for midnight under a moonless night.
If you own a digital SLR camera, bring it along. Set the ISO to around 800; use your widest lens, like a 16- or 24-millimetre, and open the shutter for about 20 seconds. If you are lucky you may be able to capture a bright meteor.
Wednesday Dec. 16 is a new moon and offers a great opportunity to get a picture of earthshine. This is when you can see the crescent and the shaded portion of the moon at the same time.
Friday Dec. 18 offers up another planet for observing. The little planet Mercury is farthest away from the Sun and can be found low in the southwestern evening sky. If you have trouble locating Mercury, then find the crescent moon and move your binoculars or telescope about seven degrees (a binocular field and a bit) toward the horizon. This is a very small planet, but having phases like our moon makes this an interesting observing target.
Sunday Dec. 20, Jupiter passes within half a degree of Neptune. This is an awesome event and should not be missed. This event will take place in the evening sky Sunday and then again on Monday.
This is a chance to see two planets in close proximity. Binoculars will let you see pale Jupiter and her four moons, with Neptune sporting a nice blue colour right beside her. In a telescope, the cloud bands on Jupiter are visible as well as her four orbiting moons.
Neptune now appears as a smaller, well-defined disc cruising on past the king of planets, Jupiter. This is a photo opportunity like no other. Remember to use plenty of power. A large telephoto camera lens or telescope would certainly be in order here.
Monday Dec. 21 is the official beginning of winter, also referred to as winter solstice. Having six inches of snow on the ground and sporting minus-20-Celsius temperatures, we have received the message loud and clear.
Thursday Dec. 24 is the first quarter moon. Find a nice hoar-frost-covered tree, frame the moon in the picture and take some pictures at different exposures. It is a relatively easy method to obtain a memorable photo.
Monday Dec. 28 is another opportunity for everyone to see a truly amazing cosmic scene. Our moon is going to sail within a half degree of the Pleiades Star Cluster. The Pleiades Star Cluster is that little cluster of stars that looks like the Big Dipper in the southeastern evening sky.
The moon is only one day past full, making it very bright. This will wash out the stars brilliance, but under clear, dark Yukon Night Skies, they should still be visible.
You can observe this event with the unaided eye, but it will be seen best in binoculars or a wide-field telescope. This also makes an easy photo opportunity with even the most basic of digital cameras.
Having seen this close pairing of our moon and the Pleiades Star Cluster, before, I highly recommend heading outside to check this out. Dress warm, bring some coffee and enjoy the show.
Thursday Dec. 28 we also have another full moon. That’s right, two full moons in one month. This second full moon is referred to as a Blue Moon.
Now you know why the month of December is such an action-packed month for Yukon night-sky observers. Take some time, the current issue of Sky News magazine, a chair, and head outside to see those amazing Yukon Night skies and enjoy the greatest light show on earth.
Clear Skies, from James “Deep Sky” Cackette.
James “Deep Sky” Cackette can be reached at email@example.com. See his photo adventures on Facebook at Yukon Night Skies.