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Touring The Evening Skies

December 9, 2017
By Jim Bonser ( , Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

I love participating in events known as "Star Parties"toamateur astronomers. A 'Star Party' is simply a gathering of amateur and sometimes professional astronomers at night under the stars with their binoculars and telescopes. The general public, including families with young children is invited and the purpose is to share views of planets, star clusters, galaxies and nebulae (also known as faint fuzzies) with young and old alike. When I am out with my telescope for a public event like this, I will often ask the person looking through my telescope if they know any constellations. Sometimes they will say, "The Big Dipper", but most people either will say they don't know any or they will say, "Orion" or "The three stars in the belt of Orion.". At that point, many times they will quickly look up and scan around carefully in the sky looking for the Hunter. Most of the time I will have to remind them that Orion is a winter constellation and is not visible in early evening in the summer or early fall months.

But now it is December and everyone's favorite and most easily recognized constellation returns to the evening skies. Orion clears the eastern horizon early in the month by about 8 o'clock. Around Christmas time, Saiph, the star that marks his right leg is clearing the treetops in the southeast. Rigel is the name of the bright blue-white star that marks his left leg and the tree belt stars form a nice line pointing straight up from the horizon.

If someone in your family received a telescope or maybe a pair of binoculars for Christmas or a birthday this year, the constellation Orion is a great place to give them 'first light'. To us astronomers, amateur or professional, 'first light' means the first time you look through your new instrument to gaze at the stars. This usually happens a week or two after you get your new toy because buying something used to look at the stars almost always results in a week or two of totally clouded night skies!

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At any rate, the first thing I would recommend looking at would be that bright star Rigel we mentioned a moment ago. It is really bright, and its blue-white color is very distinctive, so you will know which star you are looking at. Once it is centered in your eyepiece you should take a moment to adjust the finder scope to make sure it is also pointed at exactly the same star. This will mean that when you have located something in the finder, it will also be in the main telescope's field of view.

Next, while looking through the finder scope, or if you are using binoculars, slowly scan to your left and just a little closer to the horizon and you will sweep up one of the most observed nebulae in the sky: M42 or The Great Nebula in Orion. It is certainly worth taking a long careful view (be sure to start with your lowest power eyepiece in your telescope). It is simply beautiful! And it is worth remembering that that cloud and those tiny bright stars embedded in it are 13 to 14 hundred light years away from us! Wow!

Full Moon this month occurs on December 3rd. It will be the last Full Moon of 2017. The Moon rises at about 5:15 p.m. and is right above Orion's shield although since the moon is so bright those stars might be difficult to spot until the moon moves away. Last quarter moon is one week later on Sunday, December 10th and rises about 12:20 AM that morning below the hind legs of Leo the Lion. This is good, because a few nights later is the peak of the Geminid Meteor shower, so the Moon will not cause any major problems observing them. The Geminids are active between December 4 through 16, but the peak will be on the night of December 13-14 (in other words the evening of the 13th through the early morning hours of the 14th). New Moon occurs on the 18th and First Quarter on the day after Christmas the 26th perfect timing for viewing with a new telescope!

All the bright planets are morning objects this month. On the 13th the Moon will be a slender waning crescent just above Mars with Jupiter shining brightly below them both at 6 am. Mercury and Venus rise just ahead of the Sun and are very close so they will be a challenge to spot this month.

Clear Skies!

And I hope you have a Merry Christmas!



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