Astronomy News for the Month of December 2015

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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.

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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.

On June 18, 2007, Earth’s satellite passed in front of Venus during daylight hours. North American observers can witness a similar event December 7.
Credit: Anthony Ayiomamitis

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

The Moon and Santa

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 October

"The morning sky sees most of the planetary action in December, with Venus, Mars, and Jupiter all prominently displayed. A highlight of the month occurs during daylight on the 7th when the Moon passes directly in front of Venus and hides it from view.

The evening sky possesses more subtle attractions. Ura­nus and Neptune remain binocular targets all month, while Mercury climbs into view ­during twilight after mid-December. But perhaps the month’s biggest event comes on the 14th when the annual Geminid meteor shower peaks under a Moon-free sky." Astronomy Magazine, December 2015, p. 36.


Has returned to the evening sky, but remains lost in the evening twilight glow until about midmonth. Mercury lies about 4° above the western horizon for northern hemisphere observers just 30 minutes after sunset on the 15th. Mercury is at greatest eastern elongation (20° above the western horizon) on the 28th. Mercury moves from the constellation of Ophiuchus into Capricornus shining at magnitude -0.5 on the 31st.


Rises at 3:22 a.m. on the 1st and about 4:23 a.m. by month's end. Look for Venus in the early morning skies before sunrise. On the morning of the 7th, after sunrise, a waning crescent Moon occults Venus. (See Occultations for details.) Venus moves from the constellation of Virgo into Scorpius shining at magnitude -4.1.


The Winter Solstice occurs at 11:48 p.m. EST on the 21st.


Rises at 2:10 a.m. on the 1st and about 1:36 a.m. by month's end. Mars is visible to the east in the morning before dawn. Mars is in the constellation of Virgo this month shining at magnitude 1.4.


Rises at 12:32 a.m. on the 1st and about 10:36 p.m. by month's end. Jupiter is visible in the late evening and early morning sky before sunrise. Look for Jupiter in the east after midnight. Jupiter is in the constellation of Leo shining at magnitude -2.1.


Rises at 6:51 a.m. on the 1st and about 5:06 a.m. by month's end. Look to the southeast before sunrise to spot Saturn. Saturn is in the constellation of Ophiuchus shining at magnitude 0.5.


Is stationary on the 26th. Uranus sets at 2:46 a.m. on the 1st and about 12:43 a.m. by month's end. Uranus is visible in the evening sky. Look to the south soon after sunset to spot Uranus. Uranus is in the constellation of Pisces shining at magnitude 5.8.


Sets at 11:24 p.m. on the 1st and about 9:24 p.m. by month's end. Neptune can be spotted to the southwest once the skies darken, though observers will need binoculars or a telescope to see it. Neptune is in the constellation of Aquarius shining at magnitude 7.9.

Dwarf Planets


Sets at 8:42 p.m. on the 1st and about 7:39 p.m. by month's end. Ceres will be difficult to spot for those living in the more northerly latitudes due to its lower altitude just above the south-western horizon. Ceres is in the constellation of Capricornus shining at magnitude 9.3.


Sets at 7:06 p.m. on the 1st and about 5:09 p.m. by month's end. Pluto is too low to the western horizon to be spotted easily and will rapidly be lost in the twilight glow by the end of the month. 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.

    Meteor Scatter (or Meteor burst communications) - "is a radio propagation mode that exploits the ionized trails of meteors during atmospheric entry to establish brief communications paths between radio stations up to 2,250 kilometres (1,400 mi) apart." Tune your shortwave or your HF amateur radio to 55.25 MHz SSB and see if you can hear any pings.

  • Comets

  • Comet Catalina (C/2013 US10) could reach magnitude 4 in early December in the pre-dawn sky passing through the constellation of Virgo approaching the bright star Arcturus by the end of the month.

  • 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

    Solar Eclipses

  • No solar eclipse activity this month.

    Lunar Eclipses

  • No lunar eclipse activity this month.
  • Observational Opportunities

  • Look for Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Saturn before sunrise.
  • Try to spot Neptune and Uranus later in the evening.
  • Enjoy the Geminid meteor shower peaking mid-month.
  • Enjoy the Full Moon on Christmas Eve and Christmas night.
  • Asteroids

    (From west to east)
    • Vesta is in the constellation of Cetus.
    • Eunomia is in the constellation of Pegasus.
    • Laetitia is in the constellation of Cetus.
    • Psyche is at opposition on the 9th in the constellation of Taurus.
    • Nausikaa is in the constellation of Perseus.
    • Euterpe is at opposition on the 24th/25th in the constellation of Gemini.

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

    A waning crescent Moon occults Venus on the morning of December 7th. Observers across North America can follow this occultation with binoculars or a telescope. Here are the times for cities across the U.S. It is recommended that observers set up about 30 minutes before the event if viewing through a telescope.

    City Time
    Seattle 7:54 a.m. PST
    Los Angeles 8:04 a.m. PST
    Denver 9:36 a.m. MST
    Houston 11:12 a.m. CST
    Chicago 11:18 a.m. CST
    New York 12:42 p.m. EST
    Boston 12:43 p.m. EST
    Miami 12:52 p.m. EST

    IOTA Logo

  • Information on various occultations can be found by clicking the IOTA logo.
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    Subscriber Gallery

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    Member Meteor Sightings

    This is a new section where I will post meteor, fireball, etc sightings that have been published on the American Meteor Society's web site. I want to make this an active section of the web pages and newsletter and would like to publish the links to member sightings. If you have any published sightings, please provide me with the links and I will post them here for all to enjoy.

    Event ID Date/Time Location Observer Link
    3587-2015 2015-11-22 17:38 MST CO Kevin S 3587aw
    3829-2015 2015-12-05 18:06 MST Highlands Ranch, CO Burness A 3829a

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    Planetary/Lunar Exploration Missions

    (Excerpts from recent JPL mission updates)
    Cassini - November 30, 2015
    Water World

    Full-Res: PIA18343

    "Although Enceladus and Saturn's rings are largely made up of water ice, they show very different characteristics. The small ring particles are too tiny to retain internal heat and have no way to get warm, so they are frozen and geologically dead. Enceladus, on the other hand, is subject to forces that heat its interior to this very day. This results in its famous south polar water jets, which are just visible above the moon's dark, southern limb, along with a sub-surface ocean.

    Recent work by Cassini scientists suggests that Enceladus (313 miles or 504 kilometers across) has a global ocean of liquid water under its surface. This discovery increases scientists' interest in Enceladus and the quest to understand the role of water in the development of life in the solar system. (For more on the sub-surface ocean, see Cassini Finds Global Ocean in Saturn's Moon Enceladus).

    This view looks toward the unilluminated side of the rings from about 0.3 degrees below the ring plane. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on July 29, 2015. "

    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 - December 4,, 2015
    A Distant Close-up: New Horizons’ Camera Captures a Wandering Kuiper Belt Object

    "NASA's New Horizons spacecraft recently took the closest images ever of a distant Kuiper Belt object - demonstrating its ability to observe numerous such bodies over the next several years if NASA approves an extended mission into the Kuiper Belt.

    In a short animation, consisting of four frames taken by the spacecraft's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on Nov. 2, 2015, and spaced an hour apart, one can see this 90-mile (150-kilometer)-wide ancient body, officially called 1994 JR1, moving against a background of stars. When these images were made, 1994 JR1 was 3.3 billion miles (5.3 billion miles) from the sun, but only 170 million miles (280 million kilometers) away from New Horizons - setting a record, by a factor of at least 15, for the closest-ever picture of a small body in the Kuiper Belt, the solar system's "third zone" beyond the inner, rocky planets and outer, icy gas giants.

    Mission scientists plan to use images like these to study many more ancient Kuiper Belt objects from New Horizons if an extended mission is approved. New Horizons flew through the Pluto system on July 14, 2015, making the first close-up observations of Pluto and its family of five moons. The spacecraft is on course for a close flyby of another Kuiper Belt object, 2014 MU69, on Jan. 1, 2019."

    It's always Pluto Time somewhere, and NASA wants to see your view.

    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 6, 2015
    Take a tour of weird Ceres!

    "Visit a 2-mile-deep crater and a 4-mile-tall mountain in the video narrated by mission director Marc Rayman. Get your red/blue glasses ready for the finale - a global view of the dwarf planet in 3D."

    Can you guess what's creating those unusual bright spots on Ceres?

    Ceres Topographic Globe Animation

    Ion propulsion isn't something found only in science fiction. Ion engines are a real deal and drive NASA's Dawn spacecraft, en route to dwarf planet Ceres. Big things do come in small packages.

    Dawn's Virtual Flight over Vesta

    Ceres Fly By

    A gallery of images can be found online.

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

    MESSENGER - November 24, 2015
    MESSENGER's Brett Denevi Awarded Top Scientist Honor from Maryland Academy

    "The Maryland Academy of Sciences presented MESSENGER Team Member Brett Denevi with their Outstanding Young Scientist award during a ceremony on November 18 at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore.

    The Outstanding Young Scientist award program was established in 1959 to recognize and celebrate extraordinary contributions of young Maryland scientists.

    Denevi, the Deputy Instrument Scientist for the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) on the MESSENGER spacecraft, is "an unusually accomplished young scientist who has helped to solve multiple difficult problems, the solutions to which have contributed to our basic understanding of how the solar system has evolved and the processes that drove its evolution," stated MESSENGER Co-Investigator Scott Murchie."

    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 - November 5, 2015
    MAVEN Reveals Speed of Solar Wind Stripping Martian Atmosphere

    "The MAVEN mission has identified the process that appears to have played a key role in the transition of the Martian climate from an early, warm and wet environment that might have supported surface life to the cold, arid planet Mars is today.

    MAVEN data have enabled researchers to determine the rate at which the Martian atmosphere currently is losing gas to space via stripping by the solar wind. The findings reveal that the erosion of Mars' atmosphere increases significantly during solar storms. The scientific results from the mission appear in the Nov. 5 issues of the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters."

    Visit LASP and MAVEN for more information.

    Mars Science Laboratory - Curiosity - November 24, 2015

    Loss of Carbon in Martian Atmosphere Explained

    "Mars is blanketed by a thin, mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere -- one that is far too thin to keep water from freezing or quickly evaporating. However, geological evidence has led scientists to conclude that ancient Mars was once a warmer, wetter place than it is today. To produce a more temperate climate, several researchers have suggested that the planet was once shrouded in a much thicker carbon dioxide atmosphere. For decades that left the question, "Where did all the carbon go?"

    The solar wind stripped away much of Mars' ancient atmosphere and is still removing tons of it every day. But scientists have been puzzled by why they haven't found more carbon -- in the form of carbonate -- captured into Martian rocks. They have also sought to explain the ratio of heavier and lighter carbons in the modern Martian atmosphere.

    Now a team of scientists from the California Institute of Technology and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, both in Pasadena, offer an explanation of the "missing" carbon, in a paper published today by the journal Nature Communications.

    They suggest that 3.8 billion years ago, Mars might have had a moderately dense atmosphere. Such an atmosphere -- with a surface pressure equal to or less than that found on Earth -- could have evolved into the current thin one, not only minus the "missing" carbon problem, but also in a way consistent with the observed ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12, which differ only by how many neutrons are in each nucleus."

    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 3, 2015

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

    "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)."

    OPPURTUNITY UPDATE: Just In Time For Halloween, A Network Problem And An Amnesia Event Slows Down Robotic Arm Work - sols 4181-4187, October 28, 2015-November 03, 2015: :

    "Opportunity is within 'Marathon Valley' on the west rim of Endeavour Crater.

    The plan ahead was for Opportunity to use the robotic arm to place the Alpha Particle X-ray spectrometer down on a target for a week while the project conducted a weeklong test and readout of Flash memory. However, a Deep Space Network problem prevented the rover's plan from being radiated, so the rover executed run out plans on Sols 4184 and 4185 (Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, 2015).

    On Sol 4186 (Nov. 2, 2015), commands were sent to the rover to enable the use of Flash memory and to spend the week returning science data already in Flash memory. Although those commands were successful, the rover experienced an amnesia event on Sol 4186 (Nov. 2, 2015). As contingency, Flash Bank 7 readouts were performed instead. On Sol 4187 (Nov. 3, 2015), the rover successfully mounted Flash and began the return of the science data. The plan for the balance of the week is to continue with the return of science data from Flash.

    As of Sol 4187 (Nov. 3, 2015), the solar array energy production was 344 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.472 and a solar array dust factor of 0.574.

    Total odometry is 26.48 miles (42.62 kilometers), more than a marathon."

    Landing sites

    Visit the Mars Exploration Rover page.

    Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission - October 29, 2015
    Rewrite of Onboard Memory Planned for NASA Mars Orbiter

    Mission Status Report

    "Tables stored in flash memory aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) tell locations of Earth and the sun for the past 10 years, but not their locations next year. That needs to be changed. Carefully.

    The long-lived orbiter relies on these tables to recover in the event of an unplanned computer shutdown. When the spacecraft computer reboots, it checks to see where it should position the antenna for communication and, even more critically, where it should position the solar arrays for power. Flash memory is "nonvolatile" -- meaning that it retains information even while the power is off -- so it works well for this backup role."

    Simulated Flyover of Mars Canyon Map

    This animation simulates a flyover of a portion of a Martian canyon detailed in a geological map produced by the U.S. Geological Survey and based on observations by the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The landforms include a series of hills called Candor Colles.

    All of the HiRISE images are archived here.

    More information about the MRO mission is available online.

    Mars Odyssey Orbiter - September 2, 2015
    What Happened to Early Mars' Atmosphere? New Study Eliminates One Theory

    Rocks Here Sequester Some of Mars' Early Atmosphere
    This view combines information from two instruments on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to map color-coded composition over the shape of the ground in a small portion of the Nili Fossae plains region of Mars' northern hemisphere.
    Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHUAPL/Univ. of Arizona

    "Scientists may be closer to solving the mystery of how Mars changed from a world with surface water billions of years ago to the arid Red Planet of today.

    A new analysis of the largest known deposit of carbonate minerals on Mars suggests that the original Martian atmosphere may have already lost most of its carbon dioxide by the era of valley network formation.

    "The biggest carbonate deposit on Mars has, at most, twice as much carbon in it as the current Mars atmosphere," said Bethany Ehlmann of the California Institute of Technology and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, both in Pasadena. "Even if you combined all known carbon reservoirs together, it is still nowhere near enough to sequester the thick atmosphere that has been proposed for the time when there were rivers flowing on the Martian surface."

    Carbon dioxide makes up most of the Martian atmosphere. That gas can be pulled out of the air and sequestered or pulled into the ground by chemical reactions with rocks to form carbonate minerals. Years before the series of successful Mars missions, many scientists expected to find large Martian deposits of carbonates holding much of the carbon from the planet's original atmosphere. Instead, these missions have found low concentrations of carbonate distributed widely, and only a few concentrated deposits. By far the largest known carbonate-rich deposit on Mars covers an area at least the size of Delaware, and maybe as large as Arizona, in a region called Nili Fossae."

    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.

    Journey to Mars - August 18, 2015
    InSight - Revealing the Heart of Mars
    Send Your Name to Mars on NASA's Next Red Planet Mission

    "Mars enthusiasts around the world can participate in NASA's journey to Mars by adding their names to a silicon microchip headed to the Red Planet aboard NASA's InSight Mars lander, scheduled to launch next year.

    Our next step in the journey to Mars is another fantastic mission to the surface," said Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "By participating in this opportunity to send your name aboard InSight to the Red Planet, you're showing that you're part of that journey and the future of space exploration."

    Submissions will be accepted until Sept. 8. To send your name to Mars aboard InSight, go to:

    The fly-your-name opportunity comes with "frequent-flier" points to reflect an individual's personal participation in NASA's journey to Mars, which will span multiple missions and multiple decades. The InSight mission offers the second such opportunity for space exploration fans to collect points by flying their names aboard a NASA mission, with more opportunities to follow."

    Learn more about the InSight Mission.

    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

    Radio 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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