Naked Eye Astronomy – December 2023 to January 2024

Steven Burr

We start the month off with a waning gibbous moon rising at 9:19 pm. This is a good time to start viewing the lunar surface along the terminator line, the line separating night and day on the moon. When we look along this line with binoculars or a telescope, the lunar details pop out due to the contrasting light and darkness which intensifies the shadows within the craters. One of example is spotting the Lunar X at the 1st Quarter moon, 19th December.

A new moon arrives on the 12th of December allowing us to view the Milky Way in all her glory. Later in the month on the 27th of December, the dark winter night will be illuminated by the full moon called the Cold Moon. The Farmer’s Almanac attributes this name to Mohawk origins in describing the arrival of cold weather.

The Geminid Meteor shower peaks on the night of December 14 and the early morning hours of the 15th. Luckily this year, this event occurs close to the New Moon allowing us an unobstructed and dark view of the night sky. The meteors will radiate from the constellation Gemini near the bright star Castor. The origins of the meteor shower have been attributed to an asteroid known as 3200 Phaethon.

Lunar terminator with crater details (Photo: Steven Burr)

The Ursid meteor shower peaks on the night of December 23rd. Meteors will be seen originating from the constellation Ursa Minor. Unfortunately, we have a waxing gibbous moon lighting the night sky. Origins of this meteor shower are attributed to Comet 8P/Tuttle.

Jupiter and Moons (Photo: Steven Burr)

Planet wise, Venus is prominent in the morning sky just prior to daybreak and can be found in the constellation Virgo early in the month, and then in constellation Libra by the end of the month. For those with telescopes at home, Venus is now in its gibbous phase. Mars is unfortunately too close to the sun to be seen this month. Jupiter is now in the eastern sky as twilight begins and is visible throughout the night. If you have a good set of binoculars or a telescope, try to pick out Jupiter’s moons. Saturn is now receding from earth and setting earlier in the evening just prior to midnight. On the 17th of December, Saturn is just 2° North of the Moon.

The winter solstice arrives at 10:27 pm local time on Thursday, December 22nd. This is the shortest day of the year and the longest night. Astronomically, this marks the beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. On the bright side, days will only get longer from here on in!

January 2024

The New Year starts us off with a waning gibbous moon with just over 75% of the lunar surface illuminated. As some of you may have noticed, the moon now appears higher in the sky than in the summer. This is due to the Earth’s Northern pole being orientated away from the sun during the winter placing the moon on the opposite side of the Earth higher in the sky. On Thursday the 11th, we have a new moon once again provides a good view of the Milky Way which arches high in the winter sky from the Southeast to the Northwest. The full moon arrives later in month on Thursday the 25th. In accordance with the Farmer’s Almanac, this full moon is called the Full Wolf Moon as wolves were often heard at this time of the year.

The Quadrantid Meteor Shower peaks on the 3 - 4 of January. Its name originates from the now invalid Quadrans Muralis constellation in which the meteors appear to originate from. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) dropped this constellation in 1922. The origins of this meteor shower are linked to asteroid 2033 EH. The best time to see this shower is during the early morning hours prior to sunrise on the 4th. Just look to the Northeast above the constellation Boötes.

Annular Eclipse Oct. 14, 2023 (Photo: Donald Town)

Venus still shining brightly can be seen briefly an hour or two before sunrise. Mars is also visible prior to sunrise and will remain a morning sky object throughout 2024. Jupiter is situated high in the southern sky at the evening twilight. This planet is starting its eastward motion against the backdrop of the Constellation Aries. For those of you with a telescope at home, double shadows from Jupiter’s moon can be seen racing across its surface starting just prior to sunset on Sunday, the 7th. Saturn is still in the evening sky, but it is getting harder to see as it closes in on the setting Sun.

Published in the 21st edition of The South Shoreliner.