In The Sky This Month – December 2010

This feature highlights a number of meteor showers, comets and asteroids which are visible during the month of December 2010.

December 2010 Highlights
* Great Total Lunar Eclipse for the Americas and Eastern Asia on Dec 21
* Geminid Meteor Shower peaks on Dec 14
* Jupiter dominates the evening sky, while…
* Venus dominates the morning sky
* Comet 103P/Hartley 2 slowly fades as it moves away from the Earth and Sun

Note: If anyone has pictures or observations of these objects/events and want to share them with my readers, send them to the Transient Sky at <transientsky1@yahoo.com>.

Planets

Moon - The big event this month is a Total Lunar Eclipse on the night of Dec 20/21. The Moon will be located nearly overhead during the peak of the eclipse for North American observers.

The start of the umbral eclipse (when the darkest part of Earth’s shadow covers the Moon) will occur at 6:32 UT (1:32 EST / 12:32 CST / 11:32 MST / 10:32 PST) with mid-eclipse at 8:16 UT (3:16 EST / 2:16 CST / 1:16 MST / 12:16 PST)

The table below lists important lunar dates for the month, including the phases of the Moon and nights of lunar-planetary and lunar-stellar conjunctions.

Dec 1 - Moon 7° from Saturn
Dec 2 - Moon 6° from Venus and 3° from Spica
Dec 5 - New Moon
Dec 6 - Moon 0.8° from Mars
Dec 7 - Moon 2° from Mercury
Dec 11 - Moon 5° from Neptune
Dec 13 - First Quarter Moon 7° from Jupiter
Dec 14 - Moon 6° from Uranus
Dec 19 - Moon 1.5° from Pleiades and 8° from Aldebaran
Dec 21 - Full Moon and Total Lunar Eclipse
Dec 23 - Moon 8° from Pollux
Dec 24 - Moon 4° from Beehive Cluster
Dec 25 - Moon 5° from Regulus
Dec 28 - Third Quarter Moon 7° from Saturn
Dec 29 - Moon 3° from Spica
Dec 31 - Moon 7° from Venus

Mercury – Mercury is in the middle of a evening apparition at the start of the month. It’s all downhill (literally) after that as the innermost planet creeps back into the bright twilight and out of view by mid-month. At the end of the month Mercury is back as it peeks above the SE horizon right before dawn.

Dec 1 - Greatest Elongation East
Dec 7 - Moon 2° from Mercury 

Mars - Mars is practically out of view this month for most of us. Those with exceptionally clear skies and unobstructed view of the SW sky in the evening might still catch a glimpse of this +1.3 magnitude planet.

Dec 6 - Moon 0.8° from Mars

Jupiter (and Uranus, too...) - The 'King of the Planets' continues his reign as the uncontested 'King of the Evening Sky'. though fading from magnitude -2.5 to -2.3, nothing but the Moon rivals it in brightness. Located on the Pisces/Aquarius border, Jupiter is easy to find in the south-south-east as it gets dark.

If you have a pair of binoculars or small telescope take a look at Jupiter. See if you can see any of its 4 bright Galilean moons or its large atmospheric belts (there are usually 2 prominent belts but 1 has recently disappeared though it may make a comeback at any time). In addition, Jupiter is within 2.9° of +5.8 magnitude Uranus on Dec 1 and 0.7° on Dec 31.

Dec 13 - First Quarter Moon 7° from Jupiter

Saturn - Saturn rises a few hours before the Sun. Located in Virgo, the ringed planet is a close match in brightness (mag +0.9) to the Spica, the brightest star in Virgo (mag +1.0). Saturn spends the entire month within 9-10° of Spica. It's rings are slowly opening up and are currently 9° from edge-on.

Dec 1 - Moon 7° from Saturn
Dec 28 - Moon 7° from Saturn

Venus - After passing through inferior conjunction in late October , Venus is now the dominant sight in the morning sky. On Dec 1, Venus rises 3 hours before the Sun in the eastern sky. By the end of the month, it is up almost 4 hours before sunrise. Unlike this year's evening apparition which was poorly placed, Venus' current stay in the morning sky will be a good one for northern observers.

Dec 2 - Venus at its brightest (magnitude -4.5 to -4.9 depending on the source)
Dec 2 - Moon 6° from Venus
Dec 31 - Moon 7° from Venus

Meteors

Meteor activity is still quite high in December. The year is usually split in 2 with January through June having low rates with few major showers while July through December (really through the 1st week of January) have high rates with many major showers.

Sporadic Meteors

Sporadic meteors are not part of any known meteor shower. They represent the background flux of meteors. Except for the few days per year when a major shower is active, most meteors that are observed are Sporadics. This is especially true for meteors observed during the evening. During September, 10-16 or so Sporadic meteors can be observed per hour from a dark moonless sky.

Major Meteor Showers

Geminids (GEM) [Max Date = Dec 14, Max Rate = ~60-120 per hour under dark skies]

Along with the Perseids of August, the Geminids are one of the best meteor showers delivering great displays year after year. This year's Geminids are nicely timed with the First Quarter Moon will be setting around midnight.

According to Sirko Molau's analysis of video data, the Geminids are already observable at the beginning of the month though their rates are very low. The peak is predicted for the night of December 13/14 though numerous meteors should be visible for a day or two on either side of the peak. With a radiant near the star Castor in the constellation of Gemini, the Geminids are one of the rare major showers that are observable before midnight and can be observed as early as 8:00 pm though rates are usually best after 10:00 pm (though with the caveat for this year that the Moon will spoil the show until it sets around midnight). Under a dark rural moon-less sky, the Geminids can produce as many as 100+ meteors per hour. Observers under suburban skies will see lower rates.

The Geminids are the result of the break-up and subsequent activity of the "asteroid" (3200) Phaethon. Why asteroid in quotes? Most meteor showers come from comets yet Phaethon is on a very non-cometary orbit and has never shown any cometary activity. There is still much scientific discussion about what exactly Phaethon is.

More details on the Geminids and their parent "asteroid" Phaethon will be posted as we get closer to its peak.

Minor Meteor Showers

Minor showers produce so few meteors that they are hard to notice above the background of regular meteors. Starting this month, info on most of the minor showers will be provided on a weekly basis by Robert Lunsford's Meteor Activity Outlook.

Additional information on these showers and other minor showers not included here can be found at the following sites: Wayne Hally's and Mark Davis's NAMN Notes, and the International Meteor Organization's 2010 Meteor Shower Calendar.

Comets

Naked Eye Comets (V < 6.0)

None

Binocular Comets (V = 6.0 - 8.0)

Comet 103P/Hartley 2 - Comet 103P/Hartley 2 continues its retreat from the Earth and Sun. Well past its late October peak in brightness, the comet starts December around magnitude 6 and should steadily fade to around magnitude 8 by the end of the month.

.103P was discovered at Siding Spring Observatory (Australia) on March 15, 1986 by  Malcolm Hartley. With an orbital period of 6.47 years, the comet's orbit currently stretches from 1.06 AU to 5.89 AU from the Sun. Though not an especially big comet, this year it passed 0.12 AU from Earth on October 21 allowing the comet to get much brighter than usual.The comet starts the month at a distance of 1.16 AU from the Sun and 0.29 AU from Earth. By mid-month it will be 1.24 AU from the Sun and 0.36 AU from Earth. At the end of the month, Hartley 2 will be 1.36 AU and 0.46 AU from the Sun and Earth, respectively. 

Even though the comet is currently 6th magnitude and theoretically bright enough to be an easy binocular object, in reality this is a difficult object to observe. With a coma diameter approaching 1° across, the light of the comet is spread over a wide area. As a result, even small amounts of light pollution renders much of the coma invisible. Dark skies are always a plus and will help in observing this challenging comet.

The comet is located in the southern part of the winter Milky Way. The start of December sees the comet in Puppis just to the south of the bright open clusters M46 and M47. By the end of the month it will have retrograded into Canis Major. It is a morning object and is visible after midnight.

.

On November 4 the NASA EPOXI (ex-Deep Impact) spacecraft encountered Hartley 2 giving us close-up views of the comet's nucleus. This is the xth comet visited by a spacecraft after Comets 21P/Giacobini-Zinner (1985), 1P/Halley (1986), 19P/Borelly (2001), 81P/Wild 2 (2004), 9P/Tempel 1 (2005). On February 15, 2011, Tempel 1 will be the first comet to be re-visited by a spacecraft.

A finder chart for Comet Hartley 2 can be found at Comet Chasing and Sky and Telescope.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida's Comet Homepage.

Small Telescope Comets (V = 8.0 - 10.0)

Comet P/2010 V1 (Ikeya-Murakami) - Probably the surprise comet of the year, Comet Ikeya-Murakami is a rare visual find. Not long ago most bright comets were discovered by amateur astronomers visually through the eyepiece of their telescopes without the help of computers. Nowadays, the professional surveys are able to scan large swathes of sky and with the help of digital CCD cameras and detection software find most comets.

The reason Ikeya and Murakami could discover P/2010 V1 is probably because it is a small and usually weakly or even inactive comet. The fact that the comet was not visible to other comet hunters (including Ikeya) a day or two before discovery suggests it has recently undergone an outburst. CCD images of its rapidly expanding coma also point to a recent event. At discovery the comet was as bright as magnitude 7.5 to 8.0. At the start of this month the comet is around magnitude 9 to 10 and, baring another outburst, should quickly fade.

Another interesting thing about this comet is its orbit. With an aphelion of only ~4.2 AU, the comet does not extend far enough to reach the orbit of Jupiter. Unlike most cometary orbits, this orbit is very asteroidal and suggests that it more closely related to volatile-rich Main belt comets than the typical comet from the outer Solar System.

Perihelion occurred on 2010 Oct. 11 at 1.57 AU. The comet is now outbound and at mid-month is located 1.68 AU from the Sun and 2.21 AU from Earth. Starting the month in Virgo the comet will cross into Libra by mid-month.

A finder chart for Comet Ikeya-Murakami can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida's Comet Homepage.

Asteroids

Binocular and Small Telescope Asteroids (V < 9.0)

(7) Iris

Iris is an inner Main-Belt asteroid that can occassionally get as bright as any asteroid. This year, Iris will not get as bright but will still become a binocular object at opposition on January 24 at magnitude 7.9. During December, it is located in the constellation of Cancer a few degrees to the southwest of the Beehive Cluster. It starts the month at magnitude 8.9 and ends it at magnitude 8.3.

With a size of 240 x 200 x 200 km, Iris is the 5th largest stoney S-type asteroid. It was discovered in 1847 by John Russel Hind, the 1st of 10 asteroids he discovered.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Ceres from Heavens Above.

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About Carl Hergenrother
I am a professional astronomer specializing in the study of comets, asteroids and meteors. This blog will focus on my professional and amateur work in this field

5 Responses to In The Sky This Month – December 2010

  1. arnold buckhanan says:

    what is the bright lite in the sky .been looking at it for week no telescope.im in alabama the bright thelite is in the western sky.

    • arnold buckhanan says:

      no telescope thanks

    • Jill says:

      I’m not sure what you saw, but last night I was outside around 12am smoking and i knelt down and looked up just in time to see a bright comet in the southern sky. Or atleast I believe it to be a comet. It was a cone shape bright area of yellow/white… like a star followed by a trail. December 2, 2010 in Tampa Bay, FL.

    • Carl Hergenrother says:

      Hi Arnold,

      What time of the night are you seeing it?

      Jupiter is the brightest thing in the evening sky. It starts a little east of due south at the end of twilight but is mostly in the west for the rest of the evening.

      - Carl

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