skywatchers report

Welcome to the University of Texas Skywatchers' Report for Monday December 17th 2007 through Sunday January 6th 2008.

The moon is at first quarter on Monday December 17 and the last full moon of 2007 is late in the evening of December 23rd. This full moon is called the Long Night Moon. The moon is appropriately at last quarter on December 31st, the last day of the year.

The winter solstice comes early in the hours of Saturday December 22nd this year. For those of us in the US central time zone, it will come just a few minutes after midnight. The winter solstice is the shortest day and longest night for the northern hemisphere. On the flip side, the 22nd will be the summer solstice for the southern hemisphere and will be the longest day and the shortest night.

On Monday December 17th Mercury will be in superior conjunction with the sun as seen from Earth and then it will start moving into our evening skies. Pluto is in conjunction with the sun on December 20th and Jupiter is in conjunction with the sun on the 23rd. While these objects are in conjunction with the sun, we can’t see them with conventional telescopes, but spacecraft that observe the sun can see them. If you look at the wide-angle coronagraph views of the SOHO satellite, you will be able to see Mercury and Jupiter slide past the sun over the last couple of weeks of December.

Mars is the best early evening object right now since it is rising at 6 p.m. on December 17th, about 5:15 p.m. on the 24th and about 4:40 p.m. on December 31st, so it will be well above the horizon by the time the sun sets and the sky darkens. On the 18th, Mars will be at its closest point to the Earth, just 55 million miles away. Although Mars and Earth won’t be as close as they were in 2003, Mars is still quite big and bright and you might be able to pick out some surface details in medium sized telescopes. Mars is the bright pale orange object in the east at evening twilight and is to the left of the constellation Orion. The moon and Mars will pair up on the 23rd. Mars will be at opposition on the 24th, so it will rise at sunset that evening.

Saturn is the other evening object, rising at 11 p.m. on the 17th and then is up by 10 p.m. at the end of 2007. Venus is up at about 4 a.m. and is gradually rising a little later each morning as it slides back down closer to the sun.

Public viewing is finished for the fall semester. Star parties will resume in mid-to-late January. Please call back later for starting dates and times.

Thank you for calling the University of Texas Skywatchers' Report and have a happy and safe winter break.