December brings the full glory of the bright winter star group: Orion, Canis Major, Canis Minor, Auriga, Taurus, and Gemini —- as we, on Earth, in our orbit around the Sun, face the outer edge of the Milky Way galaxy. We see all these constellations under dark skies that descend much earlier in the evening, because winter arrives in the northern hemisphere with the Solstice —– December 21st at 6:03 pm EST. Day length is at its shortest this time of year as Earth’s tilt directs more sunlight to the southern hemisphere. December also brings the annual Christmas Program to the Kent County High School Planetarium.
This year will be the 28th year of annual planetarium programs at KCHS. And despite the fact that I have now retired from the classroom, Chris Singleton, director of WKHS, our FM radio station at the school, and I have decided to put together, with student participation, another original program this year for the community. I have always been fascinated by the wealth and variety of Christmas music and decided it was time we explored the history of it. Christmas has always been displayed prominently in our past shows, but we have never explored the background of the songs. Indeed, we found that Christmas music has really surprising origins.
This year then, THE BEST-LOVED SONGS OF CHRISTMAS will be presented free of charge at the Kent County High School Planetarium at 7:00 pm, on Monday December 15th through Friday December 19th. Try to join us for one these special nights, under the stars of the planetarium!
December will welcome the return of Jupiter to the evening eastern skies, which rises around 10 pm in early December and around 8 pm by Christmas time. It will be prominent all night then, the brightest thing present except of the Moon. Its magnitude will be –2.3, and it will appear among the stars of Leo the Lion. On December 9th it will be just 7 degrees from Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, while on December 11th, we should look for the waning gibbous Moon to be just below Jupiter around 11 pm.
Venus returns to the western evening sky this month too, but despite its –3.9 magnitude, it will remain too low for easy viewing. Mercury will also appear in the western sky at magnitude –0.8, below and just to the right of Venus on December 31st. It is worth trying to see the pair of planets 1/2 hour after sunset, looking southwest at a place where one can find a clear view right down to the horizon.
The cold winter nights of December also feature 2 notable meteor showers. The more famous and more prolific of the two is the Geminids which peak during the early morning hours of December 14th. The less appreciated Ursids peak on December 22nd. The Geminids are one of the the meteor showers which produces bright meteors before midnight, and this month Gemini rises before a last quarter Moon comes up. Up to 120 meteors per hour have been seen coming from the Geminids. So look high in the east on the night of December 13/14 from 11 pm to 5 am. The Ursids generally produce 15 to 20 meteors per hour and appear to come form the area of Ursa Major(Big Dipper), now seen low in the northeast sky.
December’s Moon Phases: Full (December 6th); Last Quarter (14th); New Moon (21st); and First Quarter (28th).