Astronomy News for the Month of December 2014

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For amateur radio operators and scanner enthusiasts, when in the Denver metro area, please join the Colorado Astronomy Net on the Rocky Mountain Radio League's 146.94 MHz and 449.825 MHz repeaters. The RMRL 146.94 repeater is also linked with the WB0WDF Cripple Creek 447.400 MHz repeater and Allstar nodes 28298, 28299, 29436 and 40764 (linked to the RMRL 449.875 Eldorado Mountain repeater). More information on the WB0WDF repeater links and Allstar nodes can be found at The net meets on Tuesday nights at 7 P.M. Mountain Time (US).

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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.

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.
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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 as well as meteor shower radiants are also included in the reports. These reports have been optimized for the Denver, Colorado location, however, the times will be approximate for other locations on Earth.

(All times are local unless otherwise noted.)

Planetary Highlights for August

"Although Mars is the lone bright planet visible in early evening when December opens, it soon has company. Venus ascends into the twilight sky around midmonth, and Mercury follows in the year's final days.

Later in the evening, Jupiter pokes above the eastern horizon and becomes conspicuous well before midnight. As the giant planet wheels into the western sky in the wee hours, Saturn climbs into view shortly ahead of the approaching dawn." Astronomy Magazine, December 2014, p. 36.


Is in superior conjunction on the 8th. Look for Mercury during the last 2 weeks of month low to the western horizon about 60 minutes after sunset. Mercury rises at 6:45 a.m. on the 1st. Mercury sets about 5:46 p.m. by month's end. Mercury moves from the constellation of Scorpius into Sagittarius shining at magnitude -0.8 on the 31st.


Returns to the evening sky after the 15th this month. Look for Venus about 30 minutes after sunset about 3° above the western horizon. By the end of the month, Venus is twice as high and easier to view. Venus sets at 5:09 p.m. on the 1st and about 6:02 p.m. by month's end. Venus moves from the constellation Ophiuchus into Sagittarius shining at magnitude -3.9 on the 31st.


The Winter solstice occurs on the 21st at 6:03 p.m. EST.


Is a perihelion (128.4 million miles from the Sun) on the 12th. Mars sets at 8:03 p.m. on the 1st and about 8:04 p.m. by month's end. Mars can be spotted about 20° above the southwest horizon about an hour after sunset. Mars moves from the constellation of Sagittarius into Capricornus this month shining at magnitude 1.0.


Is stationary on the 9th. Jupiter rises at 10:04 p.m. on the 1st and about 7:57 p.m. by month's end. Jupiter is in the constellation of Leo shining at magnitude -2.3.


Has returned to the morning sky after the first week of December. Saturn rises at 6:00 a.m. on the 1st and about 4:14 a.m. by month's end. Look for Saturn low above the southeastern horizon before sunrise. Saturn is in the constellation of Libra shining at magnitude 0.5.


Is stationary on the 22nd. Uranus sets at 2:25 a.m. on the 1st and about 12:22 a.m. by month's end. Uranus is still in a prime position for evening viewing, appearing to the south soon after sunset. Uranus is in the constellation of Pisces shining at magnitude 5.8.


Sets at 11:12 p.m. on the 1st and about 9:13 p.m. by month's end. Neptune is in a respectable position for viewing in the south-southwest evening sky this month. Neptune is in the constellation of Aquarius shining at magnitude 7.9.

Dwarf Planets


Is lost in the evening twilight glow along with Pluto this month and is not visible. Ceres moves from the constellation of Ophiuchus into Sagittarius shining at magnitude 8.9.


Is also lost in the Sun's twilight glow and, like Ceres, is not visible this month. Pluto is in the constellation of Sagittarius shining at magnitude 14.2. Sets at 11:54 p.m. on the 1st and about 9:53 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 PANSTARRS (C/2012 K1) passes close to the barred spiral galaxy NGC 55 in the constellation of Sculptor on the evenings of December 17 - 19. Wait until after mid-month to view the comet as the Moon will not interfere. Comet PANSTARRS may dim to 9th magnitude as the comet moves away from the Sun and away from the Earth.

  • Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) will be difficult, if not impossible to view, this month unless you have a clear, flat, unobstructed view to the west with very clear skies. If you attempt to observe this comet, look to the west once the sky darkens. Glowing around 10th magnitude, this comet will be difficult to spot even under the best of conditions.

  • 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.

  • Lunar Eclipse

  • No eclipse activity this month.

  • Observational Opportunities

  • Look for Mars to the southwest soon after sunset.
  • Find Neptune and Uranus in the evening sky.
  • Observe Jupiter in the late evening and early morning sky.
  • Spot Mercury and Venus after mid-month in the early evening sky.
  • Observe the Geminids and Ursids meteor showers.
  • Asteroids

    (From west to east)

    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 - November 24, 2014
    Circling Saturn

    Full-Res: PIA18288

    "Saturn is circled by its rings (seen nearly edge-on in this image), as well as by the moons Tethys (the large bright body near the lower right hand corner of this image) and Mimas (seen as a slight crescent against Saturn's disk above the rings, at about 4 o'clock). The shadows of the rings, each ringlet delicately recorded across Saturn's face, also circle around Saturn's south pole.

    Although the rings and larger moons of Saturn mostly orbit very near the planet's equatorial plane, this image shows that they do not all lie precisely in the orbital plane. Part of the reason that Mimas (246 miles, or 396 kilometers across) and Tethys (660 miles, or 1062 kilometers across) appear above and below the ring plane because their orbits are slightly inclined (about 1 to 1.5 degrees) relative to the rings.

    This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from slightly above the ringplane. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Aug. 14, 2014."

    The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. More information about Cassini is available at the following sites: "

    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 - November 26, 2014
    Science Shorts: Staring at the Sun


    Joel Parker
    New Horizons Co-Investigator

    "Don't stare at the Sun!

    It's a warning that you may have heard as a child, and certainly you would never want to stare at the Sun through a telescope. But in the case of the Alice instrument on the New Horizons spacecraft, we not only allow Alice to stare directly at the Sun - we encourage it!

    Alice is an ultraviolet spectrometer that will be used to study Pluto's atmosphere in several ways. Much of the time, Alice will be studying different gases in Pluto's atmosphere using its large "airglow" aperture. The airglow aperture is about 4-by-4 centimeters square, and feeds straight through to the primary mirror, bouncing off that through a slit to the grating that breaks the ultraviolet light up into a spectrum, then from there to a detector to measure the brightness at various wavelengths. The relative brightness at different wavelengths, the "fingerprints" of different atoms and molecules, will tell us what is in Pluto's atmosphere as well as other details such as the proportions of the gases it detects. When approaching Pluto with the Sun illuminating Pluto's disk and reflecting back at the spacecraft on approach, we will search for and study various spectral lines of species like nitrogen and hydrogen atoms, carbon monoxide, and noble gases such as argon."

    What is Pluto?

    On Video: How Do We Get to Pluto? Practice, Practice, Practice

    Part I: The Encounter Begins
    Small mp4 (38 MB, 640x360)
        - Large mp4 (116 MB, 1280x720)

    Part II: Passing Pluto
        - Small mp4 (34 MB, 640x360)
        - Large mp4 (102 MB, 1280x720)"

    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 - November 16, 2014
    Geologic Maps of Vesta from NASA's Dawn Mission Published

    Full image and caption

    "Images from NASA's Dawn Mission have been used to create a series of high-resolution geological maps of the large asteroid Vesta, revealing the variety of surface features in unprecedented detail. These maps are included with a series of 11 scientific papers published this week in a special issue of the journal Icarus.

    Geological mapping is a technique used to derive the geologic history of a planetary object from detailed analysis of surface morphology, topography, color and brightness information. A team of 14 scientists mapped the surface of Vesta using Dawn spacecraft data, led by three NASA-funded participating scientists: David A. Williams of Arizona State University, Tempe; R. Aileen Yingst of the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona; and W. Brent Garry of the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland."

    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 - October 24, 2014
    Third of Four Planned Maneuvers Extends MESSENGER Orbital Operations

    "MESSENGER mission controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., conducted the third of four maneuvers today to raise the spacecraft's minimum altitude sufficiently to extend orbital operations and delay the probe's inevitable impact onto Mercury's surface until early next spring.

    The first of the four maneuvers, completed on June 17, raised MESSENGER's altitude at closest approach from 115 kilometers (71.4 miles) to 156.4 kilometers (97.2 miles) above the planet's surface. The second of the four maneuvers, completed on September 12, raised MESSENGER's altitude at closest approach from 25.2 kilometers (15.7 miles) to 93.7 kilometers (58.2 miles) above the planet's surface. Because of progressive changes to the orbit over time, the spacecraft's minimum altitude has continued to decrease since September.

    At the time of this most recent maneuver, MESSENGER was in an orbit with an altitude at closest approach of 26 kilometers (16.1 miles) above the surface of Mercury. With a velocity change of 19.37 meters per second (43.33 miles per hour), the spacecraft's four largest monopropellant thrusters (with a small contribution from four of the 12 smallest monopropellant thrusters) nudged the spacecraft to an orbit with a closest approach altitude of 185.2 kilometers (115.1 miles). This maneuver also increased the spacecraft's speed relative to Mercury at the maximum distance from Mercury, adding about 7.4 minutes to the spacecraft's eight-hour, five-minute orbit period."

    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.


    Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics

    "The Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) began in 1948, a decade before NASA. We are the world's only research institute to have sent instruments to all eight planets and Pluto. LASP is an affiliate of CU-Boulder AeroSpace Ventures, a collaboration among aerospace-related departments, institutes, centers, government labs, and industry partners."

    MAVEN Status Update: Nov. 29, 2014

    "David F. Mitchell, MAVEN Project Manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center"

    "As of Friday, November 28, the MAVEN science instruments have been turned back on following safe-mode recovery, and we have resumed collecting science data."

    Visit LASP and MAVEN for more information.

    Mars Science Laboratory - Curiosity - November 26, 2014

    Sols 823-825: Brushing off the dust at Alexander Hills

    "While everyone is recovering from their Thanksgiving meals, Curiosity will be feasting on some exciting science targets at the Alexander Hills! We are on our second pass at the Pahrump Hills, and on this pass we are using the instruments on the robotic arm to investigate several key outcrops in more detail. This weekend we're focusing on the Alexander Hills. In the previous plan we used the Dust Removal Tool (DRT) to brush off the dust at a target named "Mescal" to expose a fresh surface. This Navcam image from Sol 819 shows the arm extended while investigating "Mescal." Over the weekend 3-sol plan, we'll use the ChemCam instrument to learn about the composition of the targets "Mescal" and "Horned Toad," and we'll also acquire some Mastcam images to document those targets. Then we'll use the DRT to brush off the dust at "Puente." Once we have a clean surface, we can use the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) to acquire high-resolution images to study the exposed sedimentary structures and grain sizes. After that we'll use the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) to figure out the bulk chemical composition of "Puente." The plan also includes some Navcam observations to monitor the atmosphere above Mt. Sharp and search for dust devils. As the MSL team takes a break over the Thanksgiving holiday, I know that we'll all be thankful for our healthy rover doing some really great science on Mars!"

    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 11, 2014

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

    Opportunity is on the west rim of Endeavour Crater heading towards "Marathon Valley," a putative location for abundant clay minerals about a mile (1.4 kilometers) to the south.

    The rover has begun to pick up the pace. Sol 3836 (Nov. 8, 2014), was the first sol of a 2-sol "Touch 'n Go" using the robotic arm to gather information of a target of opportunity within the arm work volume from the last drive.

    Opportunity collected a Microscopic Imager (MI) mosaic of the surface soil target, called "Rock Creek," then placed the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) on the same for a multi-hour integration. On the next sol, the rover drove about 226 feet (69 meters) to the south, passing 25.48 miles (41 kilometers) of odometry.

    On Sol 3839 (Nov. 11, 2014), Opportunity continued the fast-pace push to the south with over 371 feet (113 meters) of driving. The first portion was driven blind with the final part using guarded (autonomous) motion. Both drives involved collecting pre-drive targeted imaging and post-drive panoramas. An atmospheric argon measurement with the APXS was performed on Sol 3835 (Nov. 7, 2014). The rover is in good health.

    As of Sol 3839 (Nov. 11, 2014), the solar array energy production was 516 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 1.474 and a solar array dust factor of 0.713.

    Total odometry is 25.56 miles (41.14 kilometers)."

    Landing sites

    Visit the Mars Exploration Rover page.

    Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission - November 7, 2014
    Mars Orbiter's Spectrometer Shows Oort Comet's Coma

    Full image and caption

    "Two NASA and one European spacecraft that obtained the first up-close observations of a comet flyby of Mars on Oct. 19, have gathered new information about the basic properties of the comet's nucleus and directly detected the effects on the Martian atmosphere.

    Data from observations carried out by NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and a radar instrument on the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Mars Express spacecraft have revealed that debris from the comet added a temporary and very strong layer of ions to the ionosphere, the electrically charged layer high above Mars. In these observations, scientists were able to make a direct connection from the input of debris from a specific meteor shower to the formation of this kind of transient layer in response; that is a first on any planet, including Earth."

    All of the HiRISE images are archived here.

    More information about the MRO mission is available online.

    Mars Odyssey Orbiter - November 21, 2014
    Mars Exploration Program Director Named

    "NASA has taken another step in its Journey to Mars. Jim Watzin has been named the new director for the agency's Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Watzin, whose duties begin Dec. 1, succeeds Jim Green, NASA's planetary sciences chief who had been the acting Mars director since December 2012.

    "Jim brings the right leadership at the right time to the Mars program," said Green. "His experience and creativity will be instrumental in making the Mars 2020 rover a reality, guiding the success of the missions leading up to it, and bridging the gap from science to the future human exploration of the Red Planet. We're excited to have him join us."

    ' Watzin most recently served as the technical director and deputy program executive for Command, Control, Communication, Computer, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance at the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) in Huntsville, Alabama. Among his other duties, he oversaw MDA's space development and test activities."

    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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    Astronomy 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

    Colorado Astronomy Links

    Other Astronomy Links

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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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