Astronomy News for the Month of December 2013

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An Open Invitation

For amateur radio and scanner enthusiasts, when in the Denver metro area, please join the Colorado Astronomy Net on the Rocky Mountain Radio League 146.94 MHz repeater on Tuesday nights at 7PM local time.

Special Notice to Denver, CO residents and visitors to the area:

The Plains Conservation Center in Aurora hosts Full Moon Walks every month weather permitting on or near the night of the full Moon. Visit The Plains Conservation Center for more information and directions.

Also S&S Optika hosts Backyard Star Parties in Littleton several times a month, weather permitting. Come down and enjoy the fun and check out their fine selection of optical instruments.

 Excerpts from JPL mission updates are provided as a public service as part
of the JPL Solar System Ambassador/NASA Outreach program.

For special JPL programs and presentations in your area visit the JPL Solar System Ambassador website.
(Click on the logo to link to the JPL SSA homepage.)

In this Newsletter...

Background screen credits: NGC5775 - Imaged March 21/22, 2001 using the 16" Kitt Peak Visitors Center telescope as part of the Advanced Observing Program.

The Month At-A-Glance
A calendar displaying the daily astronomical events.


The Moon



Moon/Planet Pairs

For reference: The Full Moon subtends an angle of 0.5°.

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The Planets & Dwarf Planets

Planetary Reports generated by "TheSky" software. These reports provide predicted data for the planets for the first of each month for the current year. The rise and set times for the Sun and the Moon for each day of the month are also included in the reports.

(All times are local unless otherwise noted.)

Planetary Highlights for December - "It’s a busy month in Earth’s sky. At the top of everyone’s mind is Comet ISON (C/2012 S1), which could be magnificent both after dusk and before dawn. But don’t pass on the many bright planets visible these long nights. Venus outshines every object except the Sun and Moon, making it impossible to miss on December evenings. Jupiter gleams almost all night as it approaches its peak in early January. And mornings favorably show off Mercury, Mars, and Saturn." Astronomy Magazine, December 2013, p. 36.
Mercury - Is in superior conjunction with the Sun on the 29th. Mercury is visible, low on the eastern horizon about 30 minutes before sunrise during the first 2 weeks of December. Mercury rises about 5:46 a.m. on the 1st and about 7:39 a.m. by month's end. Mercury moves from the constellation of Libra into Sagittarius shining at magnitude -0.6 on the 1st.
Venus - Shines at magnitude -4.9 on the 6th, brighter than any other celestial object other than the Sun and Moon. Venus is stationary on the 20th. Venus sets about 7:29 p.m. on the 1st and about 6:06 p.m. by month's end. Look for Venus in the early evening towards the west. Venus will be easy to spot among the stars of the constellation Sagittarius shining at magnitude -4.9.
Earth - The Winter Solstice occurs at 12:11 p.m. EST on the 21st.
Mars - Rises at 12:56 a.m. on the 1st and about 12:09 a.m. by month's end. Look for Mars in the east before sunrise. Mars is in the constellation of Virgo this month shining at magnitude 1.1.
Jupiter - Rises at 7:19 p.m. on the 1st and about 4:59 p.m. by month's end. Look for Jupiter in the evening and early morning skies after midnight. Jupiter is in the constellation of Gemini shining at magnitude -2.6.
Saturn - Has returned to the morning sky this month. Saturn rises at 5:07 a.m. on the 1st and about 3:21 a.m. by month's end. Look for Saturn low on the eastern horizon before sunrise. Saturn is in the constellation of Libra shining at magnitude 0.6.
Uranus - Is stationary on the 17th. Uranus sets at 2:04 a.m. on the 1st and about 12:02 a.m. by month's end. Uranus is visible in the evening sky after sunset. Spot Uranus with binoculars or a small telescope. Uranus is in the constellation of Pisces shining at magnitude 5.8.
Neptune - Sets at 11:00 p.m. on the 1st and about 9:01 p.m. by month's end. Neptune can be spotted to the west in the evening skies before midnight. Neptune is in the constellation of Aquarius shining at magnitude 7.9.

Dwarf Planets

Ceres - Rising at 1:59 a.m. on the 1st and about 12:48 a.m. by month's end. Ceres is in the constellation of Virgo shining at magnitude 8.7.
Pluto - Sets at 6:51 p.m. on the 1st and about 4:53 p.m. by month's end. Pluto is in the constellation of Sagittarius shining at magnitude 14.2.

As always, good luck at spotting Neptune, Ceres and Pluto, a large telescope and dark skies will be needed.

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Astronomical Events

Meteor Showers

  • The Geminids - This shower is active during the period December 6 to December 19. Upon reaching maximum activity during December 13 to 14, hourly rates are typically near 80. The meteors are described as rapid and yellowish, with about 4% displaying persistent trains. They possess an average magnitude of 2.4.

  • The Ursids - Occurring primarily between December 17 and 24, this meteor shower reaches maximum on December 22. The maximum hourly rate is usually between 10 and 15. Meteors belonging to this stream are typically faint.

    For more information about Meteor Showers, visit Gary Kronk's Meteor Showers Online web page.

  • Comets

  • Comet "Comet ISON (C/2012 S1) has made it around the Sun, barely, giving astronomers an initial scare that it had not survived its swing around the Sun. On November 29, the SOHO spacecraft revealed that Comet ISON did in fact survive but also suffered from its close encounter with the Sun. See if you can spot Comet ISON on the morning of the 1st, low in the east before sunrise along with Saturn, Mercury and the crescent Moon. Comet ISON is best viewed during the first 2 weeks of December, after that, ISON is expected to dim by at least 5 magnitudes. Check Space Weather for updates.

    Elements and Ephemeris for C/2012 S1 (ISON)

  • For information, orbital elements and ephemerides on observable comets, visit the Observable Comets page from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

    For more information about Comets, visit Gary Kronk's webpage.

  • Eclipses

  • No eclipse activity this month.

  • Observational Opportunities

  • Observe Venus, in the early evening sky in the west-southwest.
  • Check out Neptune and Uranus in the evening skies.
  • Catch Jupiter, and Mars in the morning after midnight.
  • View Saturn and Mercury before sunrise.
  • Get up early before sunrise to see Comet ISON.
  • Asteroids

    (From west to east)
    • Iris is in the constellation of Aquarius.
    • Massalia is in the constellation of Aries.
    • Kleopatra is in the constellation of Taurus
    • Davida is in the constellation of Taurus
    • Herculina is in the constellation of Orion.
    • Melpomene is in the constellation of Hydra.
    • Pallus is in the constellation of Hydra.
    • Vesta is in the constellation of Virgo.

    • Information about the Minor Planets can be found at the Minor Planet Observer website.

    IOTA Logo

  • Information on various occultations can be found by clicking the IOTA logo.
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    Planetary/Lunar Exploration Missions

    (Excerpts from recent JPL mission updates)
    Cassini - December 01, 2013
    Titan Flyby (T-96): Peering at the North

    "During the inbound wing of this close Titan flyby, the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS) instrument will ride along with the Imaging Science Subsystem (ISS) to acquire a medium-resolution mosaic of high northern latitudes, including Titan's leading hemisphere, which has not yet been well observed. It will also look for clouds over the North Pole to monitor the evolution of the cloud system as Titan approaches summer solstice. VIMS will also look for specular reflection in an area located to the east of Ara Fluctus, between latitudes 53 N and 48 N and between longitudes 130 W – 163 W."

    Raw images are available at

    Cassini Imaging Team

    For the latest mission status reports, visit Cassini Mission Status web page. The speed and location of the spacecraft along its flight path can be viewed on the Present Position webpage.

    New Horizons - October 25, 2013
    On the Path to Pluto, 5 AU and Closing

    "Pluto isn't quite the next exit on New Horizons' voyage through the outer solar system, but the destination is definitely getting closer. Today the NASA spacecraft speeds to within five astronomical units (AU) of Pluto - which is less than five times the distance between the Earth and the sun, or about 460 million miles.

    "It's exciting to be closing in on the Pluto system," says Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo. "The encounter begins in January 2015 - just over 14 months from now. You can really feel the energy level rising on this mission!"

    Since launch in January 2006, New Horizons has covered more than 2.7 billion miles (4.4 billion kilometers) - about 85 percent of its journey - putting it in an exclusive club of deep-space explorers that includes NASA's Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. In fact, the next milepost on New Horizons' path comes next summer, when it crosses the orbit of Neptune on Aug. 25 - exactly 25 years after Voyager 2 made its historic exploration of that giant planet. When New Horizons arrives at Pluto on July 14, 2015, it will have traveled farther than any spacecraft ever has to reconnoiter its prime target."

    LORRI Looks Back

    New Horizons gallery

    Find New Horizons in the iTunes App Store here.

    For more information on the New Horizons mission - the first mission to the ninth planet - visit the New Horizons home page.

    Dawn - September 27, 2013
    Dawn Reality-Checks Telescope Studies of Asteroids

    Full image and caption

    "Tantalized by images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based data, scientists thought the giant asteroid Vesta deserved a closer look. They got a chance to do that in 2011 and 2012, when NASA's Dawn spacecraft orbited the giant asteroid, and they were able to check earlier conclusions. A new study involving Dawn's observations during that time period demonstrates how this relationship works with Hubble and ground-based telescopes to clarify our understanding of a solar system object.

    "Since the vast majority of asteroids can only be studied remotely by ground-based and space-based facilities, confirming the accuracy of such observations using in-situ measurements is important to our exploration of the solar system," said Vishnu Reddy, the lead author of a paper published recently in the journal Icarus. Reddy is based at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz., and the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany."

    Dawn's Virtual Flight over Vesta

    A gallery of images can be found online.

    For more information on the Dawn mission, visit the Dawn home page.

    MESSENGER - November 25, 2013
    A Tale of Two Comets: MESSENGER Captures Images of Encke and ISON

    "On November 18, NASA's Mercury-orbiting MESSENGER spacecraft pointed its Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) at 2P/Encke and captured this image of the comet as it sped within 2.3 million miles (3.7 million kilometers) of Mercury's surface. The next day, the probe captured this companion image of C/2012 S1 (ISON), as it cruised by Mercury at a distance of 22.5 million miles (36.2 million kilometers) on its way to its late-November closest approach to the Sun.

    MESSENGER's cameras have been acquiring targeted observations of Encke since October 28 and ISON since October 26, although the first faint detections didn't come until early November. During the closest approach of each comet to Mercury, the Mercury Atmospheric and Surface Composition Spectrometer (MASCS) and X-Ray Spectrometer (XRS) instruments also targeted the comets. Observations of ISON conclude on November 26, when the comet passes too close to the Sun, but MESSENGER will continue to monitor Encke with both the imagers and spectrometers through early December.

    The spacecraft has a view of the comets very different from that of Earth-based observers. "MESSENGER imaged Encke only a few days before its perihelion when it was at its brightest," explains Ron Vervack, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, who is leading MESSENGER's comet-observation campaign. "That we are so close to the comet at this time offers a chance to make important observations that could shed light on its asymmetric behavior about perihelion."

    In contrast, ISON did not pass as close to Mercury, but the comet was between the Earth and Mercury when it passed closest to MESSENGER. "We saw the side opposite to that visible from Earth," says Vervack, "so our images and spectra are complementary to observations from Earth made at the same time and could aid in understanding the variable activity of the comet as it approached the Sun."

    On the day that Encke was closest to Mercury, the MDIS wide-angle camera scanned the comet with all of its 12 filters while the instrument's narrow-angle camera (NAC) snapped images of the rotating comet every 10 minutes to capture a full 360-degree view. The imaging campaign for ISON was similar, with the NAC capturing a series of stills every 30 minutes."

    The MESSENGER app is available for download from iTunes.

    For more information on the MESSENGER mission, visit the MESSENGER home page.

    Pack Your Backpack

    Calling all explorers! Tour JPL with our new Virtual Field Trip site. Stops include Mission Control and the Rover Lab. Your guided tour starts when you select a "face" that will be yours throughout the visit. Cool space images and souvenirs are all included in your visit.

    Past, Present, Future and Proposed JPL Missions -

    Visit JPL's mission pages for current status.

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    Mars Missions

    Be A Martian

    Mars website mobile version is here!

    Mars on the Go! NASA Be A Martian Mobile App
    If you want the latest news as it happens, try our Be A Martian app.
    Download on Mobile Devices
    Android | iPhone | Windows Phone

    JMARS is an acronym that stands for Java Mission-planning and Analysis for Remote Sensing. It is a geospatial information system (GIS) developed by ASU's Mars Space Flight Facility to provide mission planning and data-analysis tools to NASA's orbiters, instrument team members, students of all ages, and the general public.

    Mars Science Laboratory - Curiosity - November 25, 2013

    Curiosity Resumes Science After Analysis of Voltage Issue

    "Activities over the weekend included use of Curiosity's robotic arm to deliver portions of powdered rock to a laboratory inside the rover. The powder has been stored in the arm since the rover collected it by drilling into the target rock "Cumberland" six months ago. Several portions of the powder have already been analyzed. The laboratory has flexibility for examining duplicate samples in different ways.

    The decision to resume science activities resulted from the success of work to diagnose the likely root cause of a Nov. 17 change in voltage on the vehicle. The voltage change itself did not affect the rover safety or health. The vehicle's electrical system has a "floating bus" design feature to tolerate a range of voltage differences between the vehicle's chassis -- its mechanical frame -- and the 32-volt power lines that deliver electricity throughout the rover. This protects the rover from electrical shorts.

    "We made a list of potential causes, and then determined which we could cross off the list, one by one," said rover electrical engineer Rob Zimmerman of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. Science operations were suspended for six days while this analysis took priority.

    The likely cause is an internal short in Curiosity's power source, the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator. Due to resiliency in design, this short does not affect operation of the power source or the rover. Similar generators on other spacecraft, including NASA's Cassini at Saturn, have experienced shorts with no loss of capability. Testing of another Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator over many years found no loss of capability in the presence of these types of internal shorts."

    To follow the Mars Curiosity rover and NASA on Foursquare, visit: and

    For information about NASA's partnership with Foursquare, visit:

      Mars Rover Landing - Free for the Xbox (requires Kinect)

      Visit the Mars Science Laboratory page.

    Mars Exploration Rover Mission (Spirit and Opportunity) - November 21, 2013

    SPIRIT UPDATE: Spirit Remains Silent at Troy - sols 2621-2627, May 18-24, 2011:

    "No communication has been received from Spirit since Sol 2210 (March 22, 2010).

    More than 1,300 commands were radiated to Spirit as part of the recovery effort in an attempt to elicit a response from the rover. No communication has been received from Spirit since Sol 2210 (March 22, 2010). The project concluded the Spirit recovery efforts on May 25, 2011. The remaining, pre-sequenced ultra-high frequency (UHF) relay passes scheduled for Spirit on board the Odyssey orbiter will complete on June 8, 2011.

    Total odometry is unchanged at 7,730.50 meters (4.80 miles)."

    OPPORTUNITY UPDATE: Winter Means Less Power for Solar Panels - sols 3486-3494, Nov. 13, 2013-Nov. 21, 2013 :

    "Opportunity is ascending 'Solander Point' at the rim of 'Endeavour Crater.' The rover is maintaining favorable northerly tilts for improved energy production.

    Opportunity is experiencing the power constraints of the winter season. On Sol 3489 (Nov. 16, 2013), the planned drive had to be shortened considerably owing to the constraint of the expected state of charge of the rover battery. As such, the rover only turned to face the future destination and bumped 4 inches (10 centimeters). Panoramic Camera (Pancam) and Navigation Camera (Navcam) images were taken of the near destination. On Sol 3492 (Nov. 19, 2013), the rover bumped forward about 11 feet (3.5 meters) to approach the target outcrop, called 'Moreton Island.'

    As of Sol 3494 (Nov. 21, 2013), the solar array energy production was 302 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.668 and a solar array dust factor of 0.498.

    Total odometry is 24.01 miles (38.65 kilometers)."

    Landing sites

    Visit the Mars Exploration Rover page.

    Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission - November 08, 2013
    Prolific NASA Mars Orbiter Passes Big Data Milestone

    "NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has overhauled understanding of the Red Planet since 2006, has passed 200 terabits in the amount of science data returned. The data returned by the mission alone is more than three times the total data returned via NASA's Deep Space Network for all the other missions managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., over the past 10 years.

    While the 200 terabits number includes all the data this orbiter has relayed to Earth from robots on the surface of Mars, about 99.9 percent of the volume has come from the six science instruments aboard Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The 200 terabits are equivalent to the data volume in three nonstop months of high-definition video. The number does not include the engineering data that specialists operating the orbiter from JPL and Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, use for monitoring its health and performance.

    The spacecraft pours data Earthward using a dish antenna 10 feet (3 meters) across and a transmitter powered by 215 square feet (20 square meters) of solar cells. Multiple sessions each day with giant dish antennas of the Deep Space Network in California, Spain and Australia enable Earth to receive such a torrent of data from the orbiter."

    All of the HiRISE images are archived here.

    More information about the MRO mission is available online.

    Mars Odyssey Orbiter - May 08, 2013
    Mars As Art Lands At Dulles Airport

    "The majestic beauty of the Red Planet is featured in a vivid collection of images taken by Mars spacecraft, now on exhibit at Dulles airport in Washington, DC through November 30."

    See the Mars As Art Gallery

    Dulles Airport Full News Release

    Global Martian Map

    "A simulated fly-through using the newly assembled imagery is available online.

    The fly-through plus tools for wandering across and zooming into the large image are at THEMIS."

    Daily Mars Odyssey THEMIS Images
    Can be found at the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) website.

    The Odyssey data are available through a new online access system established by the Planetary Data System.

    Visit the Mars Odyssey Mission page.

    Mars Missions Status

    New Mars missions are being planned to include several new rover and sample collection missions. Check out the Mars Missions web page and the Mars Exploration page.

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    Links and Other Space News

    (If you have a link you would like to recommend to our readers, please feel free to submit it.)

    Green Laser

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    Astronomical Lexicon

    Definitions of astronomical terms. Many of the astronomical terms used in this newsletter are defined here.

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    UT Logo

    Read the Universe Today Newsletter by clicking on the logo.

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    Acknowledgments and References

    Much of the information in this newsletter is from Astronomy® Magazine (Kalmbach Publishing), JPL mission status reports, the Internet, "Meteor Showers - A descriptive Catalog" by Gary W. Kronk, Sky & Telescope web pages, and other astronomical sources that I have stashed on my bookshelves.

    The author will accept any suggestions, constructive criticisms, and corrections. Please feel free to send me any new links or articles to share as well. I will try to accommodate any reasonable requests. Please feel free to send questions, comments, criticisms, or donations to the email address listed below. Enjoy!

    More Acknowledgements and References

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