Sky-watchers get a last chance to glimpse the ghost of Comet ISON, watch the moon glide past the goddess of love, and glimpse a mythical hunter’s trusty companion.
Zombie Comet ISON: In early December, comet watchers will want to get up before dawn to scan the eastern horizon for any signs of Comet ISON. After its fatal roasting as it rounded the Sun in late November, skywatchers can still hope that they may see the remains of the much-hyped comet with at least binoculars.
Experts predict that ISON hunting will be best from dark-sky locations, away from city lights, due to its fading brightness as the comet rapidly moves away from the Sun. Expect to find the comet headless with only a large, diffuse, fan-shaped tail visible.
To find the comet, the best bet is to scan close to the horizon before sunrise about an hour ahead of dawn, in the first two weeks of December. After that time, the comet is expected to fade from view quickly. RIP Comet ISON.
Dog-star Rising: New Moon Monday, December 2, brings dark skies perfect for exploring wintertime constellations as they make their return. Look towards the eastern sky in the early evening and you’ll be greeted by Orion’s familiar hourglass star pattern and the three stars that comprise the mythological figure’s belt.
Draw an imaginary line through the belt, towards its left. Biting at Orion’s heels is the star, Sirius, the Dog Star—which ranks as one of the brightest in the entire night sky. That’s due in part to it being one of the closest to Earth at 8.6 light years away. Sirius also marks the cornerstone of the constellation Canis Major—the big dog.
Little Beehive cluster: Once you found Sirius, why not take a pair of binoculars or a small telescope outside and gaze at the beautiful open star cluster known as Messier 41 or the Little Beehive? It’s not hard to track down as it lies only 3.5 degrees lower right of Sirius. It contains about 100 stars, with a scattering of orange stars that are red giants. Sitting some 2,300 light-years from Earth, the cluster stretches about 25 light-years across. It is estimated to be only 200 million years old.
Geminids Kick-Off. Starting Tuesday, December 3, look for the annual Geminid meteor shower to get underway. The shower won’t peak for another two weeks until December 13-14, however. With the moon out of the way for most of the week, expect to see a slow ramping up of shooting stars with anywhere from 5 to 10 meteors per hour visible at night.
Moon and Venus: Starting on Wednesday, December 4, through Friday, December 6, look for the waxing crescent moon to glide past the brilliant, diamond-like planet Venus at dusk. The evening sky show plays out in the low southwestern sky, about 30 minutes after local sunset. The two mismatched worlds will appear closest to each other on Thursday, displaying only 6 degrees of separation, a little more than the width of your three middle fingers held at arm’s length.