Astronomy News for the Month of December 2016

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An Open Invitation

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 and 29436. We are also linked via Echolink, links are k0jsc-r and canoncty. More information on the WB0WDF repeater links and Allstar nodes and Echolinks can be found at The net meets on Tuesday nights at 7 P.M. Mountain Time (US).

Interested in obtaining your Amateur Radio (Ham) License or your General Radio Operator's Licence (GROL)? Visit the South Metro VE Team website for more information. The South Metro VE Team provides test sessions on the 1st Saturday of each month at our new Eagle Street Facility, The City of Centennial, 7272 South Eagle Street, Centennial, Colorado 80112-4244 from 9am until 1pm.

The Colorado Astronomy Net is now on Facebook.
Please be sure to "Like" us!

 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...

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

14 day moon

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 December

December's evening skies are graced by three bright planets: Mercury, Venus and Mars. These three planets line up above the southwest horizon. Watch the planets change positions as the month progresses. On New Year's Eve, Mars passes extremely close to Neptune, relatively speaking. Jupiter is the visible planet in the morning sky. The 3rd Super Moon occurs on the evening of the 13th. The Geminid meteor shower peaks in the early morning hours of the 13th and the Ursid meteor shower peaks in the early morning hours of the 22nd.


Is at greatest eastern elongation (21° west to the Sun) on the 10th. Mercury is stationary on the 19th. Mercury is in inferior conjunction on the 28th. Look for Mercury during the first three weeks of December towards the southwestern horizon soon after sunset. Mercury sets at around 5:39 p.m. on the 1st and about 4:14 p.m. by month's end. Mercury is in the constellation of Sagittarius this month shining at magnitude -0.4 on the 15th.


Sets at 7:36 p.m. on the 1st and about 8:36 p.m. by month's end. Look for Venus in the early evening towards the southwestern horizon this month. Venus moves from the constellation of Sagittarius into Aquarius shining at magnitude -4.3.


The Winter Solstice occurs at 5:44 a.m. EST on the 21st.


Sets at 9:38 p.m. on the 1st and about 9:36 p.m. by month's end. Look for Mars about 30 minutes or so after sunset to the southwest. Mars moves from the constellation of Sagittarius into Capricornus shining at magnitude 0.5.


Rises about 2:37 a.m. on the 1st and about 12:56 a.m. by month's end. Look for Jupiter in the early morning to the south-southeast before sunrise. Jupiter is in the constellation of Virgo shining at magnitude -1.8.


Is in conjunction with the Sun on the 10th. Saturn is not visible this month as it is lost in the twilight glow of the Sun both in the evening and then in the morning after conjunction. Saturn will not be visible until the end of the month, rising about an hour or so before the Sun appearing low to the southeast on the 31st. Saturn is in the constellation of Ophiuchus shining at magnitude 0.5.


Sets at 3:03 a.m. on the 1st and about 1:00 a.m. by month's end. Uranus is stationary on the 29th. Uranus is visible in the evening and early morning skies this month. Uranus is in the constellation of Pisces shining at magnitude 5.7.


Sets at 11:32 p.m. on the 1st and about 9:32 p.m. by month's end. Neptune is visible in the evening sky after the skies darken after sunset. Neptune is in the constellation of Aquarius shining at magnitude 7.9.

Dwarf Planets


Sets at 2:51 a.m. on the 1st and about 1:00 a.m. by month's end. Ceres is stationary on the 15th. Ceres is visible in the evening and early morning this month. If you can spot Uranus, you should be able to spot Ceres nearby as long as you have nice dark skies. Ceres is in the constellation of Cetus shining at magnitude 8.3.


Sets at 7:10 p.m. on the 1st and about 5:13 p.m. by month's end. Look to the southwest, well below Mars and Venus, to spot Pluto in the evening skies. Pluto is in the constellation of Sagittarius shining at magnitude 14.3.

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.

    Unfortunately, a nearly full Super Moon will wash out most of the Geminid meteors, but you may still be able see some of the bright ones.

  • 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 54.310 MHz SSB and see if you can hear any pings.

  • Comets

    Comet Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova begins an 8 month plethora of comet watching. This comet will best be viewed after the 15th of the month in the early evening before the Moon rises. Passing through the constellation of Capricornus this month, this comet will hopefully brighten from 10th to 8th magnitude as the month progresses.

  • 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

  • Observe Mercury, Venus, and Mars in the early evening after sunset.
  • Try to observe Uranus, Neptune and Ceres after the skies darken to the southwest.
  • Observe the Super Moon on the evening of the 14th.
  • Look for Jupiter towards the southeast before sunrise.
  • Try to spot some of the Geminid and Ursid meteors streaking through the night sky around mid month.

  • Asteroids

    (From west to east)
    • Melpomene is in the constellation of Cetus.
    • Vesta is in the constellation of Cancer.
    • Eunomia is in the constellation of Sextans.

    • 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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    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
    3871-2015 2015-11-13 01:55 MST CO Charles N 3871a

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    Planetary/Lunar Exploration Missions

    (Excerpts from recent JPL mission updates)
    Juno - October 25, 2016
    NASA's Juno Mission Exits Safe Mode, Performs Trim Maneuver - Mission Status Report

    Full Article & Images

    "NASA's Juno spacecraft at Jupiter has left safe mode and has successfully completed a minor burn of its thruster engines in preparation for its next close flyby of Jupiter.

    Mission controllers commanded Juno to exit safe mode Monday, Oct. 24, with confirmation of safe mode exit received on the ground at 10:05 a.m. PDT (1:05 p.m. EDT). The spacecraft entered safe mode on Oct. 18 when a software performance monitor induced a reboot of the spacecraft's onboard computer. The team is still investigating the cause of the reboot and assessing two main engine check valves."

    More information on the Juno mission is available at:

    The public can follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at:

    Cassini - November 22, 2016
    NASA Saturn Mission Prepares for 'Ring-Grazing Orbits'

    Full Article & Images

    First Phase in Dramatic Endgame for Long-Lived Cassini Spacecraft

    "A thrilling ride is about to begin for NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Engineers have been pumping up the spacecraft's orbit around Saturn this year to increase its tilt with respect to the planet's equator and rings. And on Nov. 30, following a gravitational nudge from Saturn's moon Titan, Cassini will enter the first phase of the mission's dramatic endgame."

    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.

    Raw images are available at

    More information about Cassini is available at the following sites:

    Cassini Imaging Team - Archives from Dec. 2015 and earlier.

    New Horizons - October 18, 2016
    Partly Cloudy on Pluto?

    Full Article & Images

    "Pluto's present, hazy atmosphere is almost entirely free of clouds, though scientists from NASA's New Horizons mission have identified some cloud candidates after examining images taken by the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager and Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera, during the spacecraft's July 2015 flight through the Pluto system. All are low-lying, isolated small features-no broad cloud decks or fields - and while none of the features can be confirmed with stereo imaging, scientists say they are suggestive of possible, rare condensation clouds."

    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 18, 2016
    New Ceres Views as Dawn Moves Higher

    Full Article & Images

    "The brightest area on Ceres stands out amid shadowy, cratered terrain in a dramatic new view from NASA's Dawn spacecraft, taken as it looked off to the side of the dwarf planet. Dawn snapped this image on Oct. 16, from its fifth science orbit, in which the angle of the sun was different from that in previous orbits. Dawn was about 920 miles (1,480 kilometers) above Ceres when this image was taken -- an altitude the spacecraft had reached in early October."

    A gallery of images can be found online.

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


    The MESSENGER mission is officially ended but there is a lot to learn about the planet closest to our Sun. Visit the new, updated MESSENGER website:


    for resources, to learn, and to explore.

    (Click Link above for Full Article & Images)


    "After more than 10 years in operation, the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft impacted the surface of Mercury on April 30, 2015, at a speed of more than 3.91 kilometers per second (8,750 miles per hour), marking the end of operations for the hugely successful Mercury orbiter. At the MESSENGER Nears End of Operations media and public event, scientists and engineers discussed the mission's accomplishments, providing the top 10 scientific discoveries, as well as the technological innovations that grew out of the mission."

    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 - October 19, 2016
    MAVEN Observes Ups and Downs of Water Escape from Mars

    Full Article & Images

    "After investigating the upper atmosphere of the Red Planet for a full Martian year, MAVEN has determined that escaping water does not always go gently into space.

    Sophisticated measurements made by a suite of instruments on the MAVEN spacecraft revealed the ups and downs of hydrogen escape-and therefore water loss. The escape rate peaked when Mars was at its closest point to the sun and dropped off when the planet was farthest from the sun. The rate of loss varied dramatically overall, with 10 times more hydrogen escaping at the maximum."

    Visit LASP and MAVEN for more information.

    Mars Science Laboratory - Curiosity - November 29, 2016
    NASA Radio on Europe's New Mars Orbiter Aces Relay Test

    Full Article & Images

    "Data from each of the two rovers active on Mars reached Earth last week in the successful first relay test of a NASA radio aboard Europe's new Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO).

    The transmissions from NASA rovers Opportunity and Curiosity, received by one of the twin Electra radios on the orbiter on Nov. 22, mark a strengthening of the international telecommunications network supporting Mars exploration. The orbiter's main radio for communications with Earth subsequently relayed onward to Earth the data received by Electra."

    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 15, 2016

    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)."

    OPPORTUNITY UPDATE: Team Considering a Different Route Due to Boulder Field Ahead - sols 4549-4555, November 09, 2016-November 15, 2016: :

    "Opportunity is heading towards the next science waypoint on the rim of Endeavour Crater.

    On Sol 4550 (Nov. 10, 2016), the rover headed east about 39 feet (12 meters). On Sol 4552 (Nov. 12, 2016), Opportunity planned a long drive, but was cut short after protective software stopped the drive because of elevated wheel currents in the right-front wheel. The rover was attempting a turn in place on a steep slope. That put additional stress on the right-front wheel. Sensing that stress in the wheel current the rover's flight software stopped the drive.

    On Sol 4554 (Nov. 14, 2016), Opportunity continued the drive to the east for about 39 feet (12 meters), this time with a gentler turn for the rover's right-front wheel. Recent images show an extensive boulder field ahead on a steep slope, so the rover team may consider a different route.

    As of Sol 4555 (Nov. 15, 2016), the solar array energy production is 468 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.862 and a solar array dust factor of 0.697.

    Total odometry is 27.04 miles (43.51 kilometers)."

    Landing sites

    Visit the Mars Exploration Rover page.

    Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission - November 22, 2016
    Mars Ice Deposit Holds as Much Water as Lake Superior

    Full Article & Image

    "Frozen beneath a region of cracked and pitted plains on Mars lies about as much water as what's in Lake Superior, largest of the Great Lakes, researchers using NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have determined.

    Scientists examined part of Mars' Utopia Planitia region, in the mid-northern latitudes, with the orbiter's ground-penetrating Shallow Radar (SHARAD) instrument. Analyses of data from more than 600 overhead passes with the onboard radar instrument reveal a deposit more extensive in area than the state of New Mexico. The deposit ranges in thickness from about 260 feet (80 meters) to about 560 feet (170 meters), with a composition that's 50 to 85 percent water ice, mixed with dust or larger rocky particles."

    All of the HiRISE images are archived here.

    More information about the MRO mission is available online.

    Mars Odyssey Orbiter - August 23, 2016
    Test for Damp Ground at Mars' Seasonal Streaks Finds None

    Full Article and Images

    "Seasonal dark streaks on Mars that have become one of the hottest topics in interplanetary research don't hold much water, according to the latest findings from a NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars.

    The new results from NASA's Mars Odyssey mission rely on ground temperature, measured by infrared imaging using the spacecraft's Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS). They do not contradict last year's identification of hydrated salt at these flows, which since their 2011 discovery have been regarded as possible markers for the presence of liquid water on modern Mars. However, the temperature measurements now identify an upper limit on how much water is present at these darkened streaks: about as much as in the driest desert sands on Earth.

    When water is present in the spaces between particles of soil or grains of sand, it affects how quickly a patch of ground heats up during the day and cools off at night."

    Video - What might it look like if you were walking around on Mars?

    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 - September 02, 2016
    InSight - Revealing the Heart of Mars
    NASA Approves 2018 Launch of Mars InSight Mission

    "InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) is a NASA Discovery Program mission that will place a single geophysical lander on Mars to study its deep interior.

    NASA is moving forward with a spring 2018 launch of its InSight mission to study the deep interior of Mars, following final approval this week by the agency's Science Mission Directorate."

    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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