Night sky in December – southern hemisphere
Highlights: Jupiter and Venus bright.
Here is a view of the night sky this month as seen from mid-southern latitudes such as Sydney (-33° 52′) in mid December, 2013, at 10pm local time.
The planets in December 2013
Mercury is still visible before dawn at the start of December but slowly sinking each morning until it is lost to view in mid-month. Though it brightens from +0.6 to -0.8 during those first two weeks, you will need a clear, unobstructed horizon to see this innermost planet which never strays far from the Sun.
Venus continues to shine like a brilliant beacon in the evening sky, though again you will need a clear horizon as it does not get very high for observers at mid-northern latitudes due to the celestial geometry at this time of year. If you do have an unobstructed view, then you can’t mistake this second planet from the Sun as it shines at magnitude -4.9.
Mars is well-placed in morning skies, rising a little after midnight at the start of December and earlier as the month progresses. It is now heading for its next closest approach to the Earth next April and brightens from magnitude +1.2 to +0.9 during the month as it travels through Virgo. Find out more about Mars here including new maps to show its position in the sky.
Jupiter is the star of the night sky, rising early in the evening in the constellation of Gemini and then dominating the night. It shines at magnitude -2.6, making it the brightest object in the heavens after the Sun, Moon and Venus. If you have a small telescope, or binoculars held steady, you will be able to see the four main moons of Jupiter, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, that were discovered by Galileo. Not that they may not all be visible at the same time if some are hidden by the planet. A small telescope will show the belts in Jupiter’s atmosphere too.
Saturn is returning to view this month following its conjunction beyond the Sun last month. Look out for it a couple of hours before sunrise and an hour or so earlier towards the month’s end.
Uranus lies in Pisces and would theoretically be just visible with the unaided eye if you had perfect skies, because its magnitude is 5.8.
Neptune will be found in Aquarius where it shines at magnitude 7.9.
What’s left of Comet ISON?
Astronomers were hoping to see a brilliant comet in pre-dawn skies at the star of December as the much-anticipated Comet ISON (C2012 S1) re-emerged after perihelion, its closest pass of the Sun. However, the close encounter was too much for this visitor from the Oort Cloud, as our report described. A fan-shaped cloud of dust remained as December began and amateur astronomers were keen to see whether any of this would be observable in the morning sky before dawn.
Comet Lovejoy puts on a nice show
Anyone mourning the loss of ISON can take comfort in the fact that there is another comet on view this month that is a lovely sight in binoculars. Here is Skymania’s guide to viewing it.
December sees the return of the annual Geminid meteor shower, one of the year’s strongest. It peaks on the night of 13/14 December but the view of these fleeting fireworks will be affected by the light from the brilliant nearly full Moon.
Note: The sky will appear much the same from other cities at similar latitudes, such as Perth or Wellington, at around 10pm local time. Imagine holding it over your head so that the centre of the chart is the zenith and the edge runs all the way around your horizon. The sky appears the same at the start of the month an hour later and at the end of the month an hour earlier.
We use Virtual Sky, a customizable, browser-based planetarium, courtesy of Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network. Tip: The chart is interactive. Click on the date or location to the top left of the chart to view the sky at a different time or from another location. If you want to check out the sky as seen from the northern hemisphere, click here.