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An Independent Monthly Newsmagazine Serving the Community since 1989

NIGHT SKIES

Be a considerate neighbor: Shield all your outside lights downward (or turn them off completely) and enjoy the beautiful, starry night sky.

December 2005 night sky

—CHARLIE CHRISTMANN

THE SIGN OF THE FISH
In the sky this month is Pisces the fish. The constellation is quite dim; the brightest star, nu Piscium, is only magnitude 3.6. Alpha Piscium is called Alrisha, “the knot.” Alrisha is the star that ties the two fish together. Pisces is the twelfth sign of the zodiac.

The Greeks always have an interesting story to tell about the stars: Typhon was born from Gaia (Mother Earth) and Tartarus. This was Gaia's youngest offspring, but by far the deadliest and the largest monster ever conceived. Its thighs were gigantic coiled serpents; its arms could spread across the heavens. Its head was in the shape of an ass’s head and could touch the stars. When it took flight, its wings blotted out the sun. When it opened its mouth, burning boulders poured forth.

Typhon was so frightful even the gods of Olympus refused to fight it, fleeing instead to Egypt when Typhon attacked their mountain home. Each god disguised itself into an animal: Zeus transformed himself into a ram, Dionysus a goat, and so on. Aphrodite and Eros both disguised themselves as fish and swam up the Nile to escape the monster.

Eventually, Typhon was defeated, thanks in large part to the brave and level-headed Athene, who convinced Zeus to take up his thunderbolts and make battle. Typhon actually captured Zeus and placed him in a cave, but Hermes and Pan were able to free him. Zeus then took the battle to Typhon, chasing him to Sicily. There Zeus threw Mount Aetna at the monster, finally subduing it. But under the earth, the buried monster still spews up fire and boulders every so often.

Aphrodite and Eros, who escaped the monster's wrath, were given their fish-like images in the heavens, thus commemorating the time Typhon nearly overran Olympus.

There are a few fine binaries, an interesting variable, and one Messier object that is a beautiful face-on spiral; unfortunately, it is very faint and a challenge for smaller telescopes.

• Alpha Piscium is a binary where the stars orbit each other every 933 years. The two stars are magnitude 4.3 and 5.2. Under dark skies, binoculars may show this pair.
• Zeta Piscium is a fine binary with magnitudes of 5.6 and 6.5.
• The Psi1 Piscium pair is magnitude 5.3 and 5.5. Again, with binoculars you should be able to spot these.
• 65 Piscium is a wonderful binary of equally bright stars. Both are magnitude 6.3.

M74 is a spiral galaxy seen face on. It's about twenty-two million light-years away, and one of the faintest Messier objects. To see this spiral, you will need a large telescope, the larger the the better. Long-exposure photographs show two or three loosely wound spirals spinning out from a small bright nucleus. If you have access to a good telescope, look 1.5 degrees east-northeast of eta Piscium.

THE PLANETS, THE MOON, THE GEMINIDS, AND THE SUN

• Look for Mercury low in the dawn sky this month. It will be highest in the morning sky on December 12 and can be seen to the lower left of Jupiter that morning.
• Venus is low in the west after sunset. The planet will become even brighter throughout the month, about a -2.8 magnitude in early December, but finishing the month at a brilliant -0.2 magnitude. It will also set earlier each evening and will disappear below the horizon by 8:00 p.m. at the end of the month. Venus is near the waxing crescent Moon on December 4.
• Mars, too, is putting on a great show in the eastern evening sky. Like Venus, it is hard to miss. It is actually brighter then Venus early in December (magnitude -1.7), but will not brighten as fast as Venus. Mars ends the month at a -0.7 magnitude. The waxing gibbous moon passes Mars on December 11.
• Jupiter is an early riser—around 5:20 a.m. early in the month and 4:00 a.m. late in the month. It will shine at a bright -1.8 magnitude. Look for the planet in the constellation Libra. The waning crescent Moon passes Jupiter on December 26.
• Now is a great time to take a look at Saturn in your new telescope. Rising a bit before 11:00 p.m. later in the month, the rings of this planet are positioned for great viewing.
• The Moon is new on December 1 and full on December 15. The waning gibbous Moon passes Saturn on December 18.
• The Moon is new on December 1, and full on December 15.
• Look for a few Geminid meteors on December 13, the peak of the shower. Unfortunately, the Moon is nearing fullness and will make meteors difficult to see.
• The Sun moves west across the zodiac from Ophiuchus and into Sagittarius. The earliest sunset of the year is on December 7.
• Winter officially begins on December 21, at 11:36 a.m. MST.

Suggestions and comments are always welcome at sandovaldarksky@yahoo.com.

 


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