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Constellations of the month




Saturn will not be visible this month as it leaves the evening sky on its way to superior conjunction (passing behind the Sun) on December 21st before it reappears in the pre-dawn sky next year.


Jupiter is now a pre-dawn object rising some 2 hours before the Sun at the beginning of the month with its 31 arc second disk, shining at a magnitude of -1.7, to be seen under clear skies. As the month progresses, its apparent diameter increases to 33 arc seconds and it brightens to magnitude -1.8. The low elevation will hinder our view, but the equatorial bands and up to four of its Gallilean moons should be visible.


Mars. At the start of the month Mars lies in Virgo just 3 degrees up to the left of Spica, Alpha Virginis. Now a morning object at the start of its new apparition, it rises four hours or so earlier than the Sun. During the month, Mars has a magnitude increasing from 1.7 to 1.5 and an angular size of just 4.2 (increasing to 4.8) arc seconds so no details will be seen on its salmon-pink surface. Mars crosses from Virgo into Libra on the 21st, moving eastwards to closely approach Jupiter on New Years Eve before a very close conjunction with it on the 7th of January.


Venus,was seen in a close conjunction with Jupiter on the 13th November. Moving back towards the Sun, it rises just 45 minutes before the Sun at the start of December and is lost in the Sun's glare around the 12th of the month on its way towards superior conjunction (on the far side of the Sun) on January 9th. In its final week of visibility, it will have a magnitude of -3.9 and disk 9.9 arc seconds across.


Mercury, just visible in the evening sky at the end of November, will not be seen for the first three weeks of December as it passes between the Earth and the Sun on December 13th (inferior conjunction). From the 20th or so it brightens rapidly in the pre-dawn sky to reach a magnitude of -0.3 by month's end when some 23 degrees away from the Sun. As the ecliptic makes quite a steep angle to the horizon, it will then have a reasonable elevation so making the end of the month an excellent time to observe Mercury. It will then have a magnitude of -0.3 and a disk 6.9 arc seconds across.

The Night Sky In and Around Swindon December 2017

Slide Presentation

The following presentation was given at our meeting on the 17th November, 2017 by Rob Slack

The constellation Taurus

Taurus is one of the most beautiful constellations and you can almost imagine the Bull charging down to the left towards Orion. His face is delineated by the "V" shaped cluster of stars called the Hyades, his eye is the red giant star Aldebaran and the tips of his horns are shown by the stars beta and zeta Tauri. Although alpha Tauri, Aldebaran, appears to lie amongst the stars of the Hyades cluster it is, in fact, less than half their distance lying 68 light years away from us. It is around 40 times the diameter of our Sun and 100 times as bright.

The Hyiades and Pleiades. Copyright: Alson Wong

More beautiful images by Alson Wong : Astrophotography by Alson Wong

To the upper right of Taurus lies the open cluster, M45, the Pleiades. Often called the Seven Sisters, it is one of the brightest and closest open clusters. The Pleiades cluster lies at a distance of 400 light years and contains over 3000 stars. The cluster, which is about 13 light years across, is moving towards the star Betelgeuse in Orion. Surrounding the brightest stars are seen blue reflection nebulae caused by reflected light from many small carbon grains. These relfection nebulae look blue as the dust grains scatter blue light more efficiently than red. The grains form part of a molecular cloud through which the cluster is currently passing. (Or, to be more precise, did 400 years ago!)

VLT image of the Crab Nebula
Close to the tip of the left hand horn lies the Crab Nebula, also called M1 as it is the first entry of Charles Messier's catalogue of nebulous objects. Lying 6500 light years from the Sun, it is the remains of a giant star that was seen to explode as a supernova in the year 1056. It may just be glimpsed with binoculars on a very clear dark night and a telescope will show it as a misty blur of light.

Lord Rosse's drawing of M1
Its name "The Crab Nebula" was given to it by the Third Earl of Rosse who observed it with the 72 inch reflector at Birr Castle in County Offaly in central Ireland. As shown in the drawing above, it appeared to him rather lile a spider crab. The 72 inch was the world's largest telelescope for many years. At the heart of the Crab Nebula is a neutron star, the result of the collapse of the original star's core. Although only around 20 km in diameter it weighs more than our Sun and is spinning 30 times a second. Its rotating magnetic field generate beams of light and radio waves which sweep across the sky. As a result, a radio telescope will pick up very regular pulses of radiation and the object is thus also known a Pulsar. Its pulses are monitored each day at Jodrell Bank with a 13m radio telescope.
The constellation Orion

Orion, perhaps the most beautiful of constellations, will be seen in the south at around 11 - 12 pm during January. Orion is the hunter holding up a club and shield against the charge of Taurus, the Bull up and to his right. Alpha Orionis, or Betelgeuse, is a read supergiant star varying in size between three and four hundred times that of our Sun. The result is that its brightness varies somewhat. Beta Orionis, or Rigel, is a blue supergiant which, at around 1000 light years distance is about twice as far away as Betelgeuse. It has a 7th magnitude companion. The three stars of Orion's belt lie at a distance of around 1500 light years. Just below the lower left hand star lies a strip of nebulosity against which can be seen a pillar of dust in the shape of the chess-board knight. It is thus called the Horsehead Nebula. It shows up very well photographically but is exceedingly difficult to see visually - even with relativly large telescope.

The Horsehead Nebula: Anglo Australian Observatory
Beneath the central star of the belt lies Orion's sword containing one of the most beautiful sights in the heavens - The Orion Nebula. It is a region of star formation and the reddish colour seen in photographs comes from Hydrogen excited by ultraviolet emitted from the very hot young stars that make up the Trapesium which is at its heart. The nebula, cradling the trapesium stars, is a beautiful sight in binoculars or, better still, a telescope. To the eye it appears greenish, not red, as the eye is much more sensitive to the green light emitted by ionized oxygen than the reddish glow from the hydrogen atoms.

The Orion Nebula: David Malin
December 30/31st ~1 am: The Moon occults Aldebaran

Just after 1 am on the morning of the 31st of December, the near full Moon will occult the red giant star Aldebaran that lies between us and the Hyades cluster. It will dissapear behind the dark limb of the Moon just after 1 am - due to parallax,the time is dependent on your location in the UK - and reappear just before 2 am.

Around the 18th of December (with no Moon in the sky): find M31 - The Andromeda Galaxy - and perhaps M33 in Triangulum

How to find M31
Image: Stellarium/IM

In the evening, the galaxy M31 in Andromeda is visible in the south The chart above provides two ways of finding it:

1) Find the square of Pegasus. Start at the top left star of the square - Alpha Andromedae - and move two stars to the left and up a bit. Then turn 90 degrees to the right, move up to one reasonably bright star and continue a similar distance in the same direction. You should easily spot M31 with binoculars and, if there is a dark sky, you can even see it with your unaided eye. The photons that are falling on your retina left Andromeda well over two million years ago!

2) You can also find M31 by following the "arrow" made by the three rightmost bright stars of Cassiopeia down to the lower right as shown on the chart.

Around new Moon (18th December) - and away from towns and cities - you may also be able to spot M33, the third largest galaxy after M31 and our own galaxy in our Local Group of galaxies. It is a face on spiral and its surface brightness is pretty low so a dark, transparent sky will be needed to spot it using binoculars (8x40 or, preferably, 10x50). Follow the two stars back from M31 and continue in the same direction sweeping slowly as you go. It looks like a piece of tissue paper stuck on the sky just a bit brighter than the sky background. Good Hunting!

Compiled by Ian Morison - Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics
December 14th and 15th after midnight: the Geminid Meteor Shower

The Geminid Meteor shower
The early mornings of December 14th and 15th will give us the chance, if clear, of observing the peak of the Geminid meteor shower. Pleasingly, this is a great year to observe them as the thin waning crescent moon will not affect our view. The Geminids can often produce near-fireballs and so the shower is well worth observing if its clear. An observing location well away from towns or cities will pay dividends. The relatively slow moving meteors arise from debris released from the asteroid 3200 Phaethon. This is unusual, as most meteor showers come from comets. The radiant - where the meteors appear to come from - is close to the bright star Castor in the constellation Gemini as shown on the chart. If it is clear it will be cold - so wrap up well, wear a woolly hat and have some hot drinks with you.

December 22nd/23rd - late evenings: the Ursid Meteor Shower

The late evenings of the 22nd and 23rd of December are when the Ursid meteor shower will be at its best - though the peak rate of ~10-15 meteors per hour is not that great. Pleasingly, the Moon soon after new,will not affect our view during much of the night. The radiant lies close to the star Kochab in Ursa Minor (hence their name), so look northwards at a high elevation. Occasionally, there can be a far higher rate so its worth having a look should it be clear.

The planets this month