The remains of December

Our planet rounds out its year –

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– but for the next two weeks I shall be in a different part of it (Portugal) and out of touch. So I thought I would give a round-up of events in the sky from now until year’s end. I hope your holiday season is merry and leads into a fine new year, and naturally I hope you have by now received your copy of Astronomical Calendar 2016 and are finding it useful.

First, the Coma Berenicid meteors.

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The picture is over-glorified, I’m afraid. You’ll be lucky if you see as many as three an hour in the after-midnight hours of December 16 and perhaps 17. Nothing to the great Geminids of December 13/14 (for which, unfortunately, most of us were clouded out). But I like them because they add a few wisps to Berenice’s hair.

The Moon is at First Quarter on December 18.

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It is near the crossing of ecliptic and equator, traditionally still called “the First Point of Aries” though now moved by precession into Pisces.

On December 19 the Sun enters Sagittarius.

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This date, which happens this year to be a Saturday, was in ancient Rome the Christmas-like festival of Saturnalia, when masters changed places with servants. (Italians still love festivals. I wonder.)

The winter solstice falls on December 22. at 4:48 by Universal Time. The Sun is three quarters of the way around the sky from the March equinox – from the First Point of Aries – and so at this moment, by the older system that did not take account of the movement of the equinox by precession, the Sun, though still among the stars of Sagittarius, is said to enter the sign Capricorn.

Whatever the geometry, the land feels it. Many a north-side garden, many a wood or lane on the southern face of a valley, takes to wondering whether there ever was a Sun.

On December 23 there descend upon us the Ursids –

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– like icicles, we might think, since they come at midwinter and from the constellation of the polar Bear. But like all meteors they shine because they super-heat in our atmosphere; not icicles but firecrackers or candles on a Christmas tree.

Christmas Day in the morning:

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Comet Catalina, as we now know, may not be much of a Christmas comet, but there is always hope.

The Moon has been dodging other skymarks rather widely – Castor and Pollux, the Beehive cluster, less widely Regulus – but at the end of the year it slides past Jupiter at less than two degrees. The conjunction happens at 19 Universal Time (7 PM in Britain, 2 PM in eastern America), so it favors another part of the Earth; but the Moon-Jupiter exchange of positions will be a striking sight. At the midnight that begins the last day of 2015, the Moon is bearing down on this second-brightest of planets; it has shot past it, by the midnight that begins 2016.

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5 thoughts on “The remains of December”

  1. Aye! Glad to hear of sighting of Catalina Comet. I was pleased to receive a parcel of 2016 Cal’s on my birthday when I was told I probably wouldn’t receive them til the new year. Thank, powers that be! It’s been cloudy here, only saw the full Xmas moon through thick overcast, but will be lookin for this new comet.

  2. Guy, thank you very much for the year-ending round-up of events ~ unfortunately, I too missed the Geminids, but I did manage to get a nice view of Comet Catalina this morning. It has been so warm here in central Virginia recently that I was able to go out onto my deck at 5:30 a.m. in my underwear and comfortably view the comet LOL. Good thing neither of my neighbors are early risers. And of course I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of AC 16.

  3. What a wonderful round-up. Have a good trip to Portugal, and happy holidays, boas festas.
    I received my 2016 Astronomical Calendar at my workplace — it’s more convenient for me to receive parcels there than in my small post office box or left on the front porch of my home where they may be stolen. But I left it on the train on my way home, so I had to order another, which I’m now awaiting. I hope somebody makes good use of the first one.
    We had clear weather in San Francisco last night and this morning. I saw a few dramatic Geminids before I went to bed and when I got up before dawn. And I caught my second glimpse of Comet Catalina through binoculars this morning, looking like an out of focus sixth magnitude star in eastern Virgo. It may not look like much, but I love thinking that it was out in the Oort cloud for four and a half billion years until something perturbed its orbit millions (?) of years ago to send it falling toward the Sun, and that now it’s on it’s way out of the solar system forever.

    1. I’m sorry that it’s taken me two weeks to return home and “approve” Anthony’s comment for others to see, especially since it could have given them his excellent idea of leaving their copies of Astronomical Calendar 2016 on trains – a public service!

      1. Ha. My replacement copy is scheduled to be delivered today. I will try not to be so generous a second time!
        Comet Catalina has been a joy to watch. We’ve had plenty of clear mornings between the rain storms. The comet has been an easy find in binoculars, moving steadily northward from eastern Virgo into southern Bootes, and growing slightly brighter and larger. If the new year morning weather is clear, I’ll take the binoculars and tripod up to the top of the hill to share a view of the comet and Arcturus with the other early risers.

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