Column: Comets and a crescent moon light December’s night skies

Bill Smith and the RASCals of Cattle Point volunteer at Cattle Point DARK SKY Urban Star Park.

What’s happening in December’s skies? Close approach of the crescent moon, Mars and Neptune and a New Year’s Eve comet!

On Monday, Dec. 5 the Moon and Mars will make a close approach, passing within 2°52’ of each other.

From Oak Bay, the pair will be visible in the evening sky, becoming visible at around 4:39  p.m. as the dusk sky fades, 25° above your southern horizon toward Port Angeles. They’ll continue to be observable until around 8:27 p.m., when they sink to 8° above your southwestern horizon over Metchosin.

The year ends with celestial fireworks as three planets line up as if ejected from a Roman candle. Mercury, Venus and Mars are visible above the sunset horizon in the west over the Sooke Hills all month long. Of course now we’re in winter, this is in the afternoon at 4 p.m.

Venus climbs higher in the sky, looking brighter and larger than it appeared last month. On New Year’s Eve, Mars and Neptune appear very close to each other. Through telescopes, rusty red Mars and blue-green Neptune’s colours contrast beautifully.

Sky-watchers will enjoy two meteor showers this month – the Geminds  and the Ursids.

The best time to see the reliable Geminids will be next year, when the full moon won’t be so bright and interfering.

This year, however, we may luck out and see some of the brighter meteors overnight Dec. 13/14.

The best time to view the Ursids, radiating from Ursa Minor, or the little Dipper, will be from near midnight on Dec. 21 until 1 a.m., before the moon rises. They may be active Dec. 23 and 24 too.

We haven’t had a good easy-to-see comet in quite a while, but beginning in December and through most of 2017 we will have several binocular and telescopic comets to view.

The first we’ll be able to see is 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková which will appear low on the western horizon toward Metchosin on Dec.15. On that date, the comet will pass the pretty globular cluster M75. By Dec. 21, it will appear edge-on, sporting a bluish-green head and thin, sharp, edge-on view of the fan-shaped tail.

On Christmas Eve, Oak Bay tradition sees families drive to the top of Mount Tolmie to look for Santa coming high in the sky from the northwest over the Sooke Hills.

In the days before, from the same location or from our own Cattle Point Dark Sky Star Park, you might catch a glimpse of Santa Claus practicing high-speed circumnavigation alongside the International Space Station.

On New Years Eve, the comet and the crescent moon will rendezvous to say farewell to 2016.

A “periodic” comet is a previously identified comet on a return visit. Periodic comet 45P returns to the inner solar system every 5.25 years, and that’s the one that will help us ring in the New Year.

Catch up on all of NASA’s missions at Nasa.gov. Learn more about the RASCals of Cattle Point at facebook.com/groups/VictoriaRASCals. The group meets at Fairfield Community Centre Mondays at 7:30 p.m.

Dark Skies to all friends of Cattle Point Star Park.

 

 

Bill Smith and the RASCals of Cattle Point volunteer at Cattle Point DARK SKY Urban Star Park.

This summary is from “What’s Up in December 2016” by NASA announcer and astronomer Jane Houston Jones with specific permission for localization to Cattle Point DARK SKY Urban Star Park and the Oak Bay News.