A short-period comet, Comet Wirtanen takes 5.4 years to orbit the Sun. It will make a close pass by Earth in December. Some speculation is that Comet Wirtanen could reach magnitude +3.x, making it one of the brighter comets in quite a while. If so, it might be visible to the naked eye in our dark Vermont skies. It’s closest approach will be on 12/16 when it will be 7.26 million miles from us. Look for a faint, fuzzy object appearing to travel between the Hyades star cluster and the Pleiades star cluster.
Comet Wirtanen links:
– 12/10/18 Comet Wirtanen (was naked eye (barely) from my location in Dorset, Vermont, the night of December 10, 2018. Still fuzzy, poorly defined, and no visible tail through 15×70 binoculars)
– 12/12/18 Not so great seeing conditions. Comet Wirtanen was barely naked-eye visible from my location in Dorset, Vermont, if you knew where to look (above and to the left of Menkar, Alpha Cetus). Still quite faint, fuzzy, better defined, and no visible tail through 15×70 binoculars). A fair number of meteors tonight as the Geminids approach!
New Moon: 6th
First Quarter: 14th
Full Moon: 21st
Last Quarter: 28th
MERCURY – A good chance to see this not-so-easy one.
Mercury reappears in the pre-dawn sky from December 6th at a quite bright magnitude of +0.0 and high in the sky, rising around 5:40 am. Binoculars will be very helpful! By the end of the month it will rise about 6:15 am so earlier in the month will be better.
VENUS – High and Bright!
Venus starts the month bright (magnitude -4.9) and high (30 *), and maintains good viewing all month long. Super easy to identify as it is the brightest object int the morning sky (besides the Sun and Moon). Big binoculars or a small telescope should reveal the phase of Venus.
MARS – bright and easy, but fading away.
As Mars keeps moving further away from the Earth it will continue to appear smaller and dimmer in brightness (from magnitude -0.0 to magnitude +0.4 by the end of the month). That said, it remains fairly high in the sky (around 25* at the beginning of the month and an elevation of around 33* on the Solstice). At this distance it will be difficult to see any surface detail in small and medium telescopes.
JUPITER – He’s back! (Sort of).
Jupiter will appear in the predawn East around the middle of the month. It will be bright at magnitude -1.8 but quite low in the sky and so not the best for observing. The good news? It will continue to improve in the early morning sky during the coming months.
SATURN- Last Call.
You may get a peek at Saturn very low above the south-western horizon during the first week of the month, but after that it will be lost in the glare of the Sun before it disappears behind the Sun.
URANUS past Opposition, but still good!
Opposition for Uranus was October 23 so it is still fairly big and bright…for Uranus!
Uranus is still easy to see with binoculars this month, and visible throughout the evening into the early hours in the constellation of Pisces. It is around magnitude +5.7. Use a tripod to steady the binoculars. It sets around 3:30 am at the beginning of the month, and around 1:45 am at the end of the month. It is a beautiful turquoise color is great through binoculars or a telescope.
NEPTUNE – Never easy…but worth it.
Neptune sets around 11:40 pm at the beginning of the month and around 9:45 at the end. You will need binoculars or a telescope to see it, shining at magnitude 7.9 in Aquarius. Make no mistake; it is not easy and you will likely need a telescope of 8 inch and larger aperture to resolve the planet. It is very far away (2.795 billion miles at this time, and very dim (magnitude 7.9).
The Geminids peak after midnight the 14th-15th . This shower produces lots of slow movers and some fireballs. The First Quarter Moon sets an hour or two before the expected peak.
The Ursids peak late evening of the 22-23rd of the month. This shower is not great with a maximum hourly rate of about 10 to 15 meteors. The 12/21 Full Moon will not help. Still if you’re out there, keep an eye open for the bright ones.