Astrophiz 163: Holiday SkyHunting

Welcome to a special holiday edition of Astrophiz telling you what wonders you can see in the night sky from Friday 23rd December to New Year’s Eve.

Yesterday we had the December 22nd solstice. 

For those in the southern hemisphere, it’s our summer solstice and the winter solstice for those in the north.

Many cultures around the world and throughout history have staged festivals events and celebrations around this time. Here in Australia our summer holidays occur now and with Christmas and New Years Eve approaching it’s a great time to spend time with family and friends.

As I’ve been reminded by our resident observation guru Dr Ian Musgrave, this is a great time of year to see some great planetary action and some special clusters and stars and introduce younger family members to the splendours of the night sky.

So here’s our Holiday SkyHunt giving tips on what you and your family & friends can likely spot up in your night sky, whether you are just looking up in wonder, or if you have binoculars or a telescope.

There’s a lot to see over the next week, even with naked eyes, but if you have binoculars even better, and a telescope better still.

Many households will have a pair of binoculars somewhere and I’d encourage you to go and find them, and while there is an 8 dollar adapter available from online stores that will easily attach your binocs to a tripod, a great temporary hack is to use gaffer tape or duct tape to attach your binocs to a broom handle or your tripod.

Why? Doing this reduces arm fatigue remarkably and will hold your binoculars much steadier so you can easily have a good long look at things like craters on the moon and Jupiter and its 4 Galilean moons.

So what I’ve done here is to use the free Stellarium website that let’s you look forward in time and see exactly what is visible in the sky from whatever your location on earth, and I’ve also checked out Ian’s Southern Skywatch December predictions and his weekly ‘Astrobloggger’ website. Both of these great sites come up first in the search engines

The New Moon is today Friday December 23. so a nice dark night after 9:30 tonight.

So first we’ll be facing East, As we sweep our eyes from East to west, Sirius, the brightest star is high in the east, then sweeping left we see the magnificence of Orion the Hunter, which is upside down for us down under  with red Betelgeuse down on his left shoulder and bright Rigel up on his right foot. In fact for those with good colour vision, bright Mars and the the red stars Aldebaran and Betelgeuse will form a nice triangle. 

To the left of Mars is the beautiful Pleiades Cluster of young blue stars, the seven sisters, also known as Karatgurk, the girl keepers of the fire in indigenous astronomy by the Wurundgeri people of the Kulin nation. Interestingly, the legends of the relationship between the Seven Sisters and Orion the Hunter is very similar in is found in Greek and other ancient Indigenous cultures around the world.

For those with good telescopes, Blue Uranus can be found if you continue up on a line from Mars and through past the Pleiades. and Neptune can be found halfway between the Moon and Jupiter on the night of the 28th

Getting back to naked eye observers, from the Seven Sisters cluster  we sweep our eyes down to the ecliptic, that pathway taken by the sun, moon and planets and as we face due North we see the bright Red Planet Mars, which looks orange to the naked eye and continuing our sweep left along the ecliptic and high in the North-West is magnificent Jupiter, which is so easy to see as the brightest object in the sky while the moon is in hiding. 

Then further in the West and lower down is beautiful Saturn. Just a dot to the naked eye, but breathtaking in binoculars and even more so in a telescope.

And if you do have binocs or a telescope, you’ll also likely see three of Jupiter’s moons tonight. Callisto is out on its own on one side and Europa and Ganymede on the other. Io is there also but it is close to Jupiter and might be drowned out by the glare of the jolly Gas Giant.

Tomorrow night is Xmas Eve the 24th of December, for those with a low western horizon Venus and Mercury and thin crescent Moon are close together in the evening twilight just after sundown and after they have set and when the sky is dark around 9:30ish

 the view of the sky is almost identical to the 23rd, though Jupiter’s moons have moved a lot, so on Saturday 24th of December we now have Callisto and Io on one side and Ganymede on the other. Europa is hidden behind Jupiter tonight.

On the evening of the 25th of December, same again, with the crescent moon sitting between Saturn and setting Venus, and you should easily see two small moons on each side of Jupiter in your binocs or telescope.

Then on the 26th of December the crescent Moon sits close to Saturn, and on the 28th the Moon is a little larger and very close to Jupiter. Mercury and Venus climb higher in the evening twilight and are at their closest separation around the 29th.

So on NYE 31st of December we have a 65% moon which  will be quite bright but will not spoil a magnificent line of objects along the ecliptic and this time we’ll sweep from West to East and see Saturn, Jupiter, Moon, the Pleiades, Mars, then Aldebaran, the red eye of Taurus the bull,  above orange Mars and further to the right is Orion with red Betelgeuse sitting on Orion’s shoulder, then to finish our tour, higher up in the East is the magnificence of Sirius, the brightest star in our skies, held firmly in the jaws of Canis Major, the Big Dog, the fastest Dog in the world.

Note that the first quarter Moon will look great on NYE, especially through binocs or telescopes, and the craters and crater wall shadows are quite stunning along that terminator line.

For those who will want to have a look at Jupiter’s Galilean moons on New Years Eve around midnight, Jupiter will be low in the West with Ganymede and Callisto on the left and Io on the right, and Europa will be hiding behind Jupiter.

I hope all our Astrophiz listeners have a great festive season and new year …. take your friends and family outside over the next week and give them a tour, show them the magnificence of your skies,

Keep looking up.

Happy New Year … we’ll be back with Ian and more special guests in February 2023 … see you then

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