This Month’s Sky – December 2014

What’s Up in the Sky
AAA Observers’ December Guide
By Tony Faddoul

December’s Evening Planets: Mars will be up until 8:00 PM in Capricornus the Sea-goat. Blue Neptune can be found in Aquarius the Water Bearer until 11:00 PM, setting earlier every night until 9:00 PM by the end of the month. Uranus will be in Pisces the Fish all night long. Jupiter rises between Cancer the Crab and Leo the Lion around 10:00 PM in early December. It rises earlier each night until 8:00 PM by the end of December. Mercury and Venus will be visible for an hour after sunset in Sagittarius the Archer during the second half of December, and dwarf Pluto will be up all month for an hour after sunset in that constellation.

December’s Evening Stars: Spot the Winter Triangle this month starting at 8:00 PM: Sirius, the brightest star viewed from Earth is in Canis Major the Great Dog, Betelgeuse is in Orion the Hunter, and Procyon is in Canis Minor the Small Dog. Also find the stars Deneb in Cygnus the Swan, Aldeberan in Taurus the Bull, and Capella in Auriga the Charioteer. See the stars of constellations Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Perseus, Cepheus, Draco, Pegasus, Aquarius, Aries, Taurus, Pisces, Capricornus, and the two Dippers.

December’s Morning Planets: Uranus will linger until around 2:00 AM at the beginning December, setting at midnight by the end of the month. Jupiter is up between Cancer the Crab and Leo the Lion until sunrise, and Saturn is visible in Libra the Scales for an hour before sunrise.

December’s Morning Stars: The Winter Triangle of Sirius, Betelgeuse, and Procyon will be up until morning throughout December. Spot Capella in Auriga the Charioteer, Arcturus in Bootes the Herdsman, and Aldeberan in Taurus the Bull, along with the stars of constellations Leo, Gemini, Orion, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Draco, Perseus, and the two Dippers.

December Skylights

Dec 6 Full Moon at 7:27 AM
Dec 9 Jupiter stationary at 2:00 AM
Dec 11 Moon 5° south of Jupiter Dec 12 Moon at apogee (251,390 miles from Earth)
Dec 14 Geminid meteor shower peaks
Last Quarter Moon at 7:51 AM
Dec 19 Moon is 1.5° north of Saturn
Dec 21 Winter solstice 6:00 PM
New Moon at 8:36 PM
Dec 22 Uranus stationary at 1:00 AM
Dec 24 Moon at perigee (226,670 miles from Earth)
Dec 28 First Quarter Moon at 1:31 AM
Times given in EDT.

We Landed on a Comet, Where Else Did We Land?
Coming in for a Landing
On November 12, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft deployed the lander Philae to 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, making it the first man-made object to land on a comet. Now seems like a good time to review other places where humans have made their mark. Here is a list of successful landings made on six bodies in our Solar System.

Earth’s Moon: On January 31, 1966, unmanned Soviet spacecraft Luna 9 landed successfully on the moon, marking the first soft-landing on an object in space. That mission was followed by more unmanned landings. On July 20, 1969, NASA’s Apollo 11 reached the lunar surface for the first human landing on any extra-terrestrial body.
Saturn’s Moon Titan: On January 14, 2005, the Huygens probe successfully landed on Titan, part of the Cassini-Huygens joint effort between the U.S., Europe, and Italy. Unmanned Orbiter Cassini left Earth on October 15, 1997 and it is still active today after two mission extensions in 2008 and 2010.

Venus: On December 15, 1970, Venera 7, a Soviet space-craft, became the first spacecraft to land on another planet. Previous missions had failed to reach Venus’s surface or stopped transmitting data before impact. Venera 7 and subsequent successful landers – the last in 1985 – transmitted for only a matter of minutes, ultimately succumbing to the extremely high pressure and temperatures on Venus.

Mars: On July 20, 1976, NASA’s Viking 1 became the first spacecraft to successfully land on Mars. Launched in 1975, the lander operated until November 1982, surpassing its orbiter, which was powered down early in 1980.
Prior to that, the Soviets came very close with the Mars 3 spacecraft. On December 2, 1971, the probe was released during a huge sandstorm; Mars 3 successfully landed, but transmitted for less than 20 seconds before it failed.
Today, active landers on Mars include NASA’s Opportunity and Curiosity rovers.

433 Eros: Originally designed as an orbiter, NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker probe made an improvised landing on February 12, 2001, becoming the first object to touch down on an asteroid. It stayed active for about 16 days.

25143 Itokawa: On November 20, 2005, the Japanese sample-return probe Hayabusa landed on the asteroid, but it was unable to collect samples. Five days later, Hayabusa tried again and successfully activated sampling. Hayabusa left Earth on May 9, 2003. Its sample capsule returned to Earth on June 13, 2010 with the first dust ever collected from an asteroid.