The Sky Above You – December 2022
By Duncan Lunan
The Moon will be Full on December 8th, when it will have a total eclipse visible from North America and the Pacific, but not from here. It will be New on December 23rd.
After years of delays, NASA’s Artemis 1 mission is now in distant orbit around the Moon. It’s due to make another close lunar flyby and return to Earth on December 11th. Apart from one minor blip in communications, everything has gone fine, although the secondary payloads to be left in lunar orbit have not fared so well. One of the most important, Lunar Flashlight, missed the deadline altogether and will now fly on a different rocket – possibly for the best, because four of the other nine have not made contact since their release, and this may be because their batteries ran down due to the launch delays after they were sealed into the vehicle. As they’re ‘cubesats’, with built-in solar power, one or more of them may revive in sunlight, but they won’t make the intended orbits and will still be adrift in space.
The planet Mercury will reappear in the evening sky with Venus in December, at greatest elongation from the Sun on December 21st, coinciding with the winter solstice. Mercury is between Venus and the crescent Moon on December 25th, closest to Venus on the 29th.
Venus is back in the evening sky in December, still low in the southwest, passed by the Moon on the 24th and setting at 5.30 p.m. by the end of the year.
Mars is in Taurus, growing ever brighter and moving in reverse direction in the sky as it approaches its nearest to us on December 1st. In November Mars was between the horns of the Bull, but as we enter December it’s retreating back towards the Pleiades and Hyades, which it will pass before the end of the month. Due to its elliptical orbit, Mars will be at opposition, due south at midnight, on December 8th, coinciding with the Full Moon. By coincidence, between 4.55 a.m. and 5.55 a.m. that night, Mars will be occulted by the Moon, for the first time since 1952 and the last time till 2052. The planet’s brightness at that time will compensate for the fact that it won’t appear or disappear at a dark lunar edge.
Jupiter sets just after midnight in December. The Moon is near Jupiter on December 1st and December 29th.
Saturn in Capricornus sets at 8.30 p.m. in early December. The Moon appears nearby on December 26th, but by then Saturn will be disappearing into the twilight.
Uranus in Aries, occulted by the Moon for the second time this year (seen from here), on December 5th , starting just before before 5.00 p.m., when it will disappear to the north of the Bay of Rainbows, and reappearing at the bright limb of the Moon, well north of Mare Crisium, 22 minutes later.
Neptune, between Aquarius and Pisces, sets at 11.30 p.m. in December, reversing its motion on December 4th. Neptune appears near the Moon on December 1st and 28th.
The Geminid shower from the asteroid Phaethon peaks on 13th-14th December, but the Moon will spoil it when it rises at 9 p.m..
Duncan Lunan’s most recent books, From the Moon to the Stars and The Other Side of the Interface, published by Other Side Books in 2019 and 2021, are available through Amazon or from the publishers. For details and for his other books see Duncan’s website, www.duncanlunan.com.
The Sky Above You
By Duncan Lunan
About this Column
I began writing this column in early 1983 at the suggestion of the late Chris Boyce. At that time the Post Office would allow 1000 free mailings to start a new business, just under the number of small press newspapers in the UK at the time. I printed a flyer with the help of John Braithwaite (of Braithwaite Telescopes) offering a three-part column for £5, with the sky this month, a series of articles for beginners, and a monthly news feature. The column ran from May 1983 to May 1993 in various newspapers and magazines, but never in more than five outlets at a time, although every one of those 1000-plus papers would have included an astrology column. Since then it’s appeared sporadically in a range of publications including The Southsider in Glasgow and the Dalyan Courier in Turkey, but most often, normally three times per year, in Jeff Hawke’s Cosmos from the first issue in March 2003 until the last in January 2018. It continues to appear monthly in Troon's Going Out and Orkney News. Enquries from other outlets welcomed!
The monthly maps for the column were drawn for me by Jim Barker, based on similar, uncredited ones in Dr. Leon Hausman’s “Astronomy Handbook” (Fawcett Publications, 1956). Jim had to redraw or elongate several of them because they were drawn for mid-US latitudes, about 40 degrees North, making them usable over most of the northern hemisphere. The biggest change needed was in November when only Dubhe, Merak and Megrez of the Big Dipper, as the US version called it, were visible at that latitude. In the UK, all the stars of the Plough are circumpolar, always above the horizon. We decided to keep an insert in the January map showing the position of M42, the Great Nebula in the Sword of Orion, and for that reason, to stick with the set time of 9 p.m., (10 p.m. BST in summer), although in Scotland the sky isn’t dark then during June and July.
To use the maps in theory you should hold them overhead, aligning the North edge to true north, marked by Polaris and indicated by Dubhe and Merak, the Pointers. It’s more practical to hold the map in front of you when looking south and then rotate it as you face east, south and west. Some readers are confused because east is on the left, opposite to terrestrial maps, but that’s because they’re the other way up. When you’re facing south and looking at the sky, east is on your left.
The star patterns are the same for each month of each year, and only the positions of the planets change. (“Astronomy Handbook” accidentally shows Saturn in Virgo during May, showing that the maps weren’t originally drawn for the Hausman book.) Consequently regular readers for a year will by then have built up a complete set of twelve.