December, the month of the silent, holy and longest night – perfect for stargazing. Until they hang all those beautiful Christmas lights across the streets and block our view. Never fear though, there are still many beautiful things we’ll be able to see. The Moon will be New at the beginning of the month and therefore up during the day; as the moon ‘waxes’ (the visible part grows, as opposed to ‘waning’ after a full moon when the illuminated area shrinks) you will be able to see the crescent phase through to the half moon in 9th week.
Look to the horizon in the South West in the early evening on your way to Christmas formals during 9th week and you should see this spectacular Moon side by side with Venus. Venus (after the Moon and the Sun) is the brightest object in the night sky, and it is often called ‘The Evening Star’ as it is only seen for a short while after Sunset (or for a short while before Sunrise) because of it’s proximity to the Sun. It will stay visible right throughout the month in the South Western sky, providing an appropriate point of focus for anybody playing a Wise Man in a nativity play this Christmas. Remember, the first thing you need to do when stargazing is work out which direction you’re facing – think which window you would watch the Sunset out of and this will be facing West.
Once Venus and the Moon have set, turn to the South East and from about 10pm one of the best Winter constellations, Orion (the Hunter) will be out for the rest of the night (though it will be in the South East by the early hours of the morning). Orion’s Belt is actually only a small part of the entire constellation of the hunter (he has body, sword and shield too), but it will help you pick out the rest of the stars on the sky.
FIG. 1.— The constellation of Orion the hunter, showing the blue stars in his belt, the pink Orion nebula below it and Betelgeuse in the top left corner.
Betelgeuse in the top left corner (Orion’s ‘shoulder’) is an impressively large red supergiant (if you compare it with the incredibly blue stars in Orion’s belt it will look distinctly redder.) If placed at the centre of the solar system, its surface would extend all the way out to Jupiter’s orbit. It’s due to die and go supernovae very soon (within ∼ a million years, which is no time in star lifetimes), so catch a glimpse of it while you still can! It’s predicted that when it does explode, the light emitted will be so bright, even on Earth, it will outshine the Moon and will be visible during the day; fingers crossed it happens in within our lifetime!
Orion was a big deal in Greek Mythology, he was the son of Poseidon and the daughter of King Minos of Crete. Apparently he was the Ryan Gosling of his time, which meant that he was tall, handsome and carried an unbreakable bronze club. He also had a habit of falling in love very frequently, one time with all seven of the Pleiades sisters. He pursued them for a while before Zeus decided enough was enough and scooped up all the sisters and placed them in the sky away from Orion and his charms.
The Pleiades star cluster is now one of the most beautiful and can also be seen with the naked eye (although it gets even more spectacular if you have any binoculars; there’s a lot more than seven stars). It looks sort of like a miniature ‘Plough’ (Ursa Major or ‘The Big Dipper’) and can be found by roughly tracing the line of Orion’s belt higher into the sky, into the constellation of Taurus. Mid month, the Moon will be quite close and bright so you won’t be able to see it, but by Christmas Eve you’ll have a great view of it in the South on your way to the pub (or maybe a Midight service).
FIG. 2.— The open star cluster Pleiades, or the ‘Seven Sisters’, located in the constellation of Taurus.
Just don’t forget to look out for Father Christmas when you’re stargazing – he goes by so fast he looks like a shooting star!
FIG. 3.— A star chart showing the positions of the stars on 5th December, mid 9th week, at 9pm (or 8pm on the 19th December). The East and West directions appear flipped but if you hold it above your head you will see that they then point in the right direction.