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  800 Fort Negley Blvd., Nashville, TN 37203

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December 2017

After Sunset

Low in the west just after sunset are three bright stars that make up the Summer Triangle. These stars spent the entire night above the horizon back in the summer, but now they set earlier each and every night, eventually disappearing into the glow of sunset by the middle of January.

Higher in the west are Pegasus the Flying Horse and Andromeda the Princess. Under dark skies, look for M-31, the Andromeda Galaxy. Try binoculars if you can’t see it with your unaided eyes. That faint smudge in the sky is a massive galaxy composed of hundreds of billions of stars, two million light years away from us.

For much of the year, we use the stars of the Big Dipper to help us find Polaris, the North Star. However, the Big Dipper is harder to find in the early evening hours this time of year. It appears very low to the northern horizon after sunset. Some of its stars even set below the horizon from our latitude in Tennessee. You’ll have to stay out past midnight to see it all.

Fortunately, another group of stars can help us find our way. Look for a group of five stars known as Cassiopeia the Queen. When the Big Dipper is low to the horizon, Cassiopeia is high in the north. The central peak of this constellation’s W-shape also points you in the direction of Polaris.

Polaris is not a particularly bright star, but it does remain fixed in the sky throughout the night and throughout the year. When you face the North Star, you’re facing due north. Polaris is at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. This group of stars is officially known as Ursa Minor the Little Bear.

To the east, you can find the bright stars of the winter evening sky. The most famous and easily found constellation is Orion the Hunter. Look for the three stars in a straight line that mark his belt, the two stars that mark his shoulders, and the two stars of his feet. Betelgeuse, one of this shoulder stars, is disctincly red in color. Learn to find Orion, and he can direct you to many other sights of the winter sky.

Follow the belt down and to the left for the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, in Canis Major the Big Dog. Follow the belt stars up and to the right to find orange star Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the Bull. Look just past Aldebaran and you may see a grouping of stars called M-45, or the Pleiades Star Cluster.

Look below Orion’s belt to find M-42, the Great Orion Nebula. This faint patch of light is a massive star-forming cloud of gas and dust over one thousand light years away. Take a look through steady binoculars or a small telescope to see a little more detail.

Skywatchers under exceptionally dark skies on moonless nights may see the Milky Way stretching from the southeast to the nothwest, passing high above through Cassiopeia and on towards the setting Summer Triangle.

There are no bright planets to see until the early morning. If you like a challenge, find some really dark skies and a small telescope to look for the distant, faint planet Uranus, now hiding within Pisces the Fish. While it’s technically possible for some people with excellent vision to see the blue-green planet with the unaided eye, keep in mind it wasn’t even discovered until 1781. It doesn’t exactly stand out!

Stay Up Late

As midnight approaches, the Big Dipper begins to rise in the northeast but won’t be fully visible until the pre-dawn hours. Pegasus and Andromeda are setting and Orion is now high overhead.

A Look Ahead

As Earth orbits the Sun throughout the year, the constellations rise and set just a little bit earlier every day. You won’t see much difference from night to night, but you will over the course of weeks or months. What we see in today’s pre-dawn sky is a preview of the early evening sky in later months. Go out before dawn this month for a look ahead at the winter evening sky.

Just before dawn, our winter constellations have set in the west. For two or three hours before sunrise, red planet Mars is visible rising in the southeast, not far from the bright star Spica in Virgo the Maiden. Bright Jupiter rises shortly after Mars.

Geminid Meteor Shower

This year the Geminid Meteor Shower peaks on the morning of December 14th. Most meteor showers are best before dawn, but the Geminids are best a little earlier, peaking around 2:00 am. You might be able to see some late evening meteors too. No telescopes necessary! Bundle up warm, grab a lawn chair, a blanket, and a hot beverage – and bring along a friend. Face east, relax, gaze upwards, and most importantly, be patient. The peak rate is about 120 meteors per hour, but that’s only under very dark skies far away from artificial lights. The Moon is a thin crescent rising near dawn so it won’t wash out fainter meteors with its light. The Geminids get their name from the constellation Gemini the Twins. Geminid meteors may appear anywhere in the sky, but they all will appear to be coming from the direction of Gemini.

800 Fort Negley Blvd. Nashville, TN 37203
615-862-5160
Hours: 10:00am - 5:00pm
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