December Night Sky
December 2008 Night Sky
Rest in Peace
Mars is truly a formidable environment. Getting robots to operate on the surface for any length of time is difficult. The sunlight on the surface is significantly less than on Earth. This means that the solar panels used to create electrical power don’t work as well. The temperatures on the surface in mid-summer rarely rise above freezing, punishing any batteries that store electrical power. If that does not kill the electrical power systems, then the dust storms kick in, coating the solar panels in a layer of fine dust, further diminishing the electricity generated by the panels. Oh, and then there is the earth-year long winter when the number of daylight hours get short.
NASA has declared that the Phoenix Mars Lander is likely dead. Phoenix landed in the Vastitas Borealis plains of Mars on May 25, 2008, farther north than any previous spacecraft visiting on the Martian surface. Phoenix ceased communications after more than five months on the surface. As scientists had expected, the onset of the Martian winter and the decline in sunshine at the arctic landing site is not providing enough sunlight for the solar arrays to charge batteries that operate the instruments.
During its life on Mars, Phoenix dug, scooped, baked, sniffed, and tasted the Red Planet’s soil. In so doing, it verified the presence of water-ice in the Martian subsurface and returned more than twenty-five thousand pictures.
But Phoenix is not the only human-built robot in trouble on Mars. The Mars rover Spirit may be facing near-death. From its equatorial exploration zone on the red planet, Spirit is in a power-saving silent mode. The rover‘s solar panels are filthy with red soil after it took a direct hit from a major regional dust storm. For Earth-bound scientists, it’s a wait-and-see game. Hopefully Spirit will attempt to contact Earth on its own soon.
The good news is that the twin of Spirit, Opportunity, at Meridiani Planum, is much healthier, routinely driving some 260 feet or more per Mars day.
Bright Stars Abound
Go outside in the chilly evening this December about 8:00 pm. Look to the west, and you will find several bright stars. In the northwest is Vega, a member of the constellation Lyra. Vega is hard to miss at magnitude 0.01. Also in the northwest, above Vega, is slightly dimmer Deneb in the constellation Cygnus. Just above the horizon in the west is Altar, the brightest star in Aquila. In the south-southwest is Fomalhaut in Piscis Australis shining at magnitude 1.16.
Back in the northeast is the brighter of the Gemini twins, Pollux, just above the horizon. About halfway up in the northeast is Capella, a member of the constellation Auriga, shining at magnitude 0.08. A bit to the east of Capella, and a bit dimmer, is Alanath, in Taurus. Also in Taurus is Aldebaran, the heart of the bull. Find it due east about halfway up.
And now for the grand finale: Orion is back gracing the fall skies. The bright shoulder star is the bright red Betelgeuse, magnitude 0.5. The dimmer shoulder is the star Bellatrix. In the belt, the brightest star is Alnilam. And finally, the brightest foot on Orion is Rigel, shining at magnitude 0.12.
The Planets and the Moon
Look for Mercury in the western evening twilight just after sunset, middle to late in the month. On the 28th, forty-five minutes after sunset, look to the upper left of the Moon with binoculars to spot Mercury.
Venus will continue to shine bright in the western sky after sunset. You can’t miss Venus. On the 1st, use your binoculars to locate Venus to the right of the Moon at about 4:00 p.m. One hour after sunset on the 27th, you may be able to see the faintest planet, Neptune. Look 1.5 degrees to the right of Venus with good binoculars or a telescope to find Neptune.
Late in the month, you might glimpse Mars low in the east, thirty minutes before sunrise.
Jupiter is quickly sliding to the west this month and will be in the southwest after sunset. If you found Venus on the 1st, try for Jupiter at the same time. It will be just above and to the right of the Moon, but dimmer than Venus.
Saturn will rise after midnight this month and be high in the sky at sunup. On the 18th, use the Moon to find Saturn. Saturn will be to the upper left of the Moon.
On the 24th, look for a blinking red light moving quickly across the night sky, most likely accompanied by a jolly, “Ho, Ho, Ho!”
Winter begins at 5:04 a.m. on December 21st.
The Moon is full on the 12th and new on the 27th.