Hello Earthlings and Happy Holidays! There are some exciting things in the sky to aid in the festivities, and you’ll find all the knowledge you need here to impress with cosmic knowledge.
The constellation of Sagittarius has left our evening skies for the season, bringing with it the core of the Milky Way band. You can still catch some of our galaxy high in the western sky coming through the summer triangle. As Earth continues to make its journey around the sun, we have some new constellations rising in our evening skies. Look east around 8pm to find Orion with his famous belt and sword rising for his winter hunt. With him comes the famed Orion nebula. Visible with the naked eye in dark conditions, look for this stellar nursery in the middle of the ‘sword’, a line of faint stars pointing down from the leftmost star in the belt, Alnitak.
Our largest planetary neighbor shines brightly all winter long. Hanging out near the front hoof of Aries the ram, it is the brightest point in our evening skies. The easiest way to find the ‘king of gods’ is by using the prominent ‘W’ of the Casseopiea constellation. The left vertex of this easily recognizable collection of stars points directly to Jupiter in our southeastern skies shortly after sunset.
Stretch your gaze slightly to the southwest to find the next largest planet in our solar system, Saturn, hanging out this season in the constellation Aquarius. Slightly west of due south and soon to leave our evening skies, Saturn can be found using the triangle of the constellation Capricorn under dark skies. By the end of January, Saturn will be lost in the glare of the sun, not to return at night for another 6 months.
As we leave the Geminids and Ursids meteor showers behind, we enter into the range of an often overlooked display of ‘shooting stars’. Today, December 28th, marks the beginning of the Quadrantids meteor shower. Set to peak on the evening of January 3rd just after midnight, this brief shower can produce up to 100 meteors per hour.
SpaceX’s Starship had a semi-successful second fully integrated test flight last month. A heavy lift rocket system and the most powerful launch vehicle ever built, Starship has the capability to bring future astronauts onto the surface of the moon and eventually Mars. Lasting twice as long as its first test back in April of this year, this launch resulted in successful separation of the capsule and the super heavy booster, something not obtained in the first launch. Shortly after separation the booster lost control on its descent back to Earth and burned up. They will look to have the booster successfully land back on the surface of Earth in the next flight, a necessary maneuver for the future reusability of the rocket. The Starship capsule reached 80% orbital velocity before it was detonated due to a loss of communication. SpaceX will look to get Starship to orbit on the next go around. No date has been set for this third launch.
The James Webb Space Telescope has been sending back incredible photos and information from our universe. Check out this most recent picture of our funniest planetary neighbor, Uranus. With an extreme tilt of 97.77°, from Earth we can look straight down onto the planet’s north pole and achieve a unique face on view of its rings.
From everyone here at Stargazing Joshua Tree, we wish you a happy, healthy, and clear holiday season!
Astronomical Dates and Times:
Last Quarter: December 4th
New Moon: December 12th
First Quarter: December 19th
Full Moon: December 26th (Cold Moon)
Last Quarter: January 3rd
New Moon: January 11th
First Quarter: January 17th
Full Moon: January 25th (Wolf Moon)
Joshua Tree, CA - Pacific Standard Time:
Astro Twilight End December 1st: 6:04pm
Astro Twilight End December 15th: 6:06pm
Astro Twilight End December 31st: 6:15pm
Astro Twilight End January 1st: 6:15pm
Astro Twilight End January 15th: 6:26pm
Astro Twilight End January 31st: 6:40pm