Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Stargazing, December 2011

By David Reneke

Your guide and star chart for the night sky this month.

Do you retire early and plop yourself in front of the telly all night? Make an exception this month and head outside to see a truly dazzling sight. Look to the west just after sunset and you’ll be able to spot the famed ‘evening star’ – better known as the planet Venus.

Setting slowly, it shines with an eerie glow and for decades has been the reason for a dozens of UFO reports. It really does look like one! At this time of the year it sits high in the sky and a lot of people mistake it for the fabled ‘Christmas Star’ the three wise men followed.

Not many people know this but Venus exhibits phases just like the moon – crescent, half and full. Grab your telescope and have a look to see I’m not pulling your leg. At its brightest, Venus is stunning!

If you have a pair of binoculars do what’s called a sky-sweep. I’m sure you’ll stop many times and wonder at so many stars, gas clouds and the odd cluster or two. Summer is ideal for stargazing. In fact, the eagerly awaited Geminids meteor shower happens from 7 December just after midnight. Don’t miss it!

There’s a full moon on December 13. Not the most ideal time to go lunar exploring but you will be amazed how much a cheap pair of sunglasses cuts down that glare. Try it! Most people visit our observatory and planetariums when there’s a full Moon. Oh, by the way, watch out for Lunatics too OK?

Want to see a really cool sight? There’s a total lunar eclipse visible from Australia lasting almost an hour on December 10. An amazing sight it will be visible from all of Asia and Australia. Totally safe to watch, it’s a stunning sight as the moon usually turns a coppery red colour.

The partial stages start just before midnight on the 10 December AEDST, with mid-totality occurring at about 1:30am on the 11th December. Binoculars can help improve the view. Photographing a Lunar Eclipse is quite easy, and doesn't need any special equipment or filters.

Tonight’s best pick? Jupiter, easily seen all night long hanging like a beacon in the eastern sky. Even a small telescope will reveal the cloud bands and 4 main moons surrounding the planet. Jupiter is probably the most stunning sight in a telescope and becomes easier to see as it rises higher and higher throughout the night.

Mars rises around midnight and the lord of the rings, Saturn, opens the month rising in the eastern sky just before dawn. Hey, looking at buying a telescope for Xmas and need some advice? See my new helpful free guide on what to look for at www.davidreneke.com

David Reneke is one of Australia’s leading astronomers, lecturers and teachers. He’s a feature writer for Australasian Science magazine and a science correspondent for ABC and commercial radio.