Star Charts

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Star Charts

December 2019

DOWNLOADABLE STAR CHART

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After Sunset

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 on autumn evenings. It appears very low to the northern horizon after sunset. Some of its stars even set below the horizon from our latitude in Tennessee.

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 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.

As the month begins, you may be able to see three planets low in the southwest. Saturn is highest of the three, then bright Venus, then Jupiter, which will be the lowest and hardest to spot. As the month continues, Saturn and Jupiter set earlier and earlier, and by mid-month both will be lost in the glow of sunset. Venus will continue to be visible after sunset through May. Look for Venus and Saturn very close to each other on December 11. Seek out a southwestern horizon clear of trees, buildings, or other obstacles to catch this beautiful scene in the short time before it sets.

High in the west is the asterism called the Great Square of Pegasus. Three of these four stars are part of autumn constellation Pegasus the Flying Horse. The remaining star marks the head of Andromeda the Princess.

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. This part of the sky contains some of the brightest stars throughout the year.

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.

High above the head of Orion is the bright star Capella, part of Auriga the Charioteer. Capella represents a goat that Auriga is carrying. Look closely for three fainter stars in a small triangle shape: those are the ‘kids’.

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 late winter night sky.

Orion the HunterTaurus the BullGemini the Twins, and Canis Major the Big Dog are high in the south around midnight, and many of them will have set in the west before dawn. Even springtime favorite Leo the Lion is high in the east before the sun rises.

Compare the locations of the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia from where you saw them in the early evening. These two star pictures stay on nearly opposite sides of Polaris so that as one is high in the sky, the other dips low to the northern horizon.

From Dark Skies

Bright outdoor lighting can make it hard to see all but the brightest stars. On a clear night, find a dark spot far away from city lights, give your eyes time to adjust to the dark, and look for even more celestial sights. You can begin by looking for the fainter stars of the season’s constellations. Pegasus, Andromeda, and the stars of the Little Dipper all become easier to explore.

Winter evenings are great for spotting the Milky Way coursing from the southeast, through Canis Major, Orion and Auriga, on past Cassiopeia in the northwest. This hazy band of light is the bulk of our disc-shaped galaxy, as we see it from within.

Near Andromeda, look for M-31, the Andromeda Galaxy. This massive spiral galaxy is the most distant object visible to the unaided eye, but to find it requires crisp, dark skies and a little patience. Binoculars or a small telescope can improve the view, but don’t expect to see more than a faint, fuzzy, oval-shaped blob. If you don’t feel impressed, just remind yourself you’re looking at the collected light of possibly one trillion stars, all at a distance of two million light years away. Now that’s impressive!

Don’t have a telescope? Don’t know where to find dark skies? The next free public star parties hosted by the Barnard-Seyfert Astronomical Society are scheduled for Saturday, December 7 from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at Shelby Bottoms Nature Center. Come observe the Moon, Saturn, star clusters, the Andromeda Galaxy and more, through telescopes provided by BSAS members.

Visit the BSAS web site at bsasnashville.com for details. If the weather is bad, the star party will be canceled. Make sure to check their web site for updates before making the trip to a star party, especially if the weather is iffy. On the BSAS web site you’ll also find driving directions and a list of future events.

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 a friend. Relax, gaze upwards, and most importantly, be patient. The peak rate is about 20-30 meteors per hour, under skies far from city lights. The bright light of the Moon will hide the many fainter meteors from view. 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.

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