Astronomy: What to look for in the Essex sky in December
James Abbott, North Essex Astronomical Society
- Credit: James Abbott
James Abbott of North Essex Astronomical Society on what can be seen this month.
The Winter Solstice takes place at sunset on December 21.
Whilst this is the day with the shortest hours of daylight of the year, the shortest afternoon is about a week earlier and the shortest morning a week later. So by the first week of January daylight is expanding both AM and PM.
From the 6th to the 9th, three planets can be seen in the early evening in the South with the young Moon close to each in turn – from right to left Venus, Saturn and then Jupiter.
Venus is easily the brightest of the three and this month is at its brightest for the whole year, visible soon after sunset. By the end of December all three planets are becoming more difficult to spot, moving into evening twilight.
Full Moon is on December 19 and taking place near the Winter Solstice is exceptionally high in the sky.
The Geminid meteor shower peaks on the night of December 13/14. The Moon is not helpful this year as it is waxing as the shower reaches its peak and so to see the meteors in a darker sky will require waiting until after midnight.
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Clear nights during the Christmas week will offer good views of the bright winter constellations. Orion is due South at 11pm and can be used as a finder to nearby bright stars (see chart).
To the upper right of Orion is Aldebaran, the lead start in the constellation of Taurus.
Aldebaran is noticeably orange in colour and is about 65 light years from Earth.
To the upper left of Orion the twin stars of Gemini can be found.
The higher of the two is Castor which is blue-white and 52 light years away, the lower is Pollux which is orange and about 34 light years away.
Then to the lower left of Orion is the brightest star in the night sky. This is Sirius, which is blue-white and nine light years from Earth.
Because Sirius is so bright and quite low down as seen from the UK, on winter nights it can appear to flash through different colours, a process known as scintillation - caused by seeing the star light through layers of our atmosphere.