This is the Dudley Observatory Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday, December 28th and 29th written by Joe Slomka.
The Sun sets at 4:28 PM; night falls at 6:11. Dawn breaks at 5:43 AM and ends with the Sun rising at 7:25.
The twilight sky contains the planets Uranus, in Pisces, and Neptune, in Aquarius. They become visible as twilight gives way to night. Mercury blazes at magnitude minus 0.5 about eight degrees above the southwestern horizon. Binoculars may help find Mercury amid the sky glow. Mercury sets at 5:57.
Night finds the asteroid 4Vesta, in Cetus, joining Uranus and Neptune. While Uranus is bright enough for binoculars, all three require detailed finder charts for location. These charts are available from astronomical magazines, websites and apps. Uranus is best observed at 6:24 PM, and sets at 12:53 AM. Neptune sets at 9:32 PM. Vesta sets at 11:42 PM.
The eighteen-day-old waning Moon rises at 8:11 PM on Monday, near Leo’s front paw and appears about 85 percent illuminated. Tuesday, the slimmer crescent, rises at 9:11 PM near Leo’s forward rear leg.
Jupiter rises at 10:21 PM between Leo’s tail and Virgo’s head. It begins a pre-dawn planetary parade. Telescopic observers can see Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a giant storm, at 5:36 AM Tuesday and 1:28 AM Wednesday. They can also witness the Jovian moon Ganymede’s shadow beginning to cross the planet’s face at 12:09 AM Tuesday and exit at 3:26 AM. The moon Io reappears from behind Jupiter at 1:11 AMalso Tuesday.
The term ecliptic is heard many times on the Skywatch Line.
The Dawn sky dramatically demonstrates it. Go out about 5:45 AM and look southeast. On both days, a waning Moon is high in Leo. Look to the lower right, and find Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Saturn. One can draw a straight line through these heavenly bodies. This line is the ecliptic – the path of the Sun, Moon and planets across the sky. Mars lies in in Virgo, near the bright star Spica. Venus is in Libra and newly risen Saturn is in Ophiuchus.
Comet Catalina follows its own path. It is about four degrees below the bright star Arcturus in Bootes. Recent reports have the comet shining at about magnitude 6.3, visible through binoculars under good conditions.
Since Saturn is a feature of our Dawn sky. Let us consider his importance. This time of the year was dedicated to Saturn, the Roman God of Harvests. A series of feasts were held during the week of the Winter Solstice – the Saturnalia. Saturn was depicted as a jolly old man. People decorated evergreen trees. Candles were lit everywhere. Houses were decorated with wreaths and Holly. Decorated cookies were baked. People wore red peaked hats, similar to the “Santa hats” of today. Banquets were held both in honor of the harvest and wishing for a prosperous new year. Gifts were exchanged: dolls for the children, candles and fruits for the adults. Benefits were held for he poor. Saturnalia was an official government holiday. The holiday was so popular that Christians moved the feast of Christ’s birth to compete and adopted many of the symbols and traditions of this pagan feast.
The Dudley Observatory and Albany Amateur Astronomers wish their followers Happy Holidays.