December 23, 2021
One of the brightest constellations, Orion, is illuminating the night sky from now until February. It is one of the easiest constellations to spot owing to its famous 'belt of stars' named Orion's Belt, which can be used as a guide to view nebulas found in the constellation, namely, the M42 Orion Nebula and Barnard33 Horsehead Nebula. M42 is visible to the naked eye below the ‘belt’ as a bright smudge and is 1,344 light-years from Earth. Currently, you can catch a glimpse of the constellation as it rises in the eastern sky about 1, 5 hours after sunset. Gradually, this will get earlier as we enter 2022.
The Horsehead Nebula, on the other hand, is tricky to find but not impossible. It can be found south of the easternmost star in Orion's Belt. The constellation is home to two of the ten brightest stars - the Rigel (Beta Orionis) and Betelgeuse (Alpha Orionis).
Rigel, bottom right star, is a blue supergiant and lies 860 light years from Earth. It is 18-24 times the mass of our Sun and is actually the biggest and brightest of a system of four stars that appear as a single point of light from Earth.
Betelgeuse, the top left star, is a red supergiant and is one of the largest stars visible to the naked eye and lies 500-600 light years from Earth - it is so colossal that if it took the place of the sun, it would envelop Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. In the next 100 000 years, this giant is expected to explode in powerful, luminous Supernovae!
||Sirius means “glowing” in Greek and refers to the star’s bright, twinkling characteristic that makes it highly visible in the Northern Hemisphere during snowy Christmas time nights. Its luminosity seems more intense than other stars simply because it is relatively close to Earth at 8.6 light-years away. It earns the title of the brightest star in the sky as seen from Earth and is clearly visible to the naked eye.|
Between December and February is the perfect time to view shimmering Sirius as it arcs across the southern sky in glorious shades of blue and white sprinkled with many other colours. At first glance, it may seem like the star is a lone ranger, but it is actually part of a binary system of two stars that orbit each other, with one much bigger and brighter than the other.
In December, Sirius is easiest to spot in mid-evening as it rises, and you can use Orion’s Belt as a guide to finding this beauty. It is a short distance southwest of Orion, and the belt’s three stars point downward toward the star, which is located to the left.
The biggest planet in the solar system, Jupiter, is a luminous marvel every Christmas as it shifts more towards the west. It is the second brightest planet and is a great sight during frosty December nights. It offers more to see than any other planet thanks to its distinct features and its four largest moons that twinkle nearby. With its current magnitude, Jupiter is visible to the naked eye even in highly polluted areas. It’s easiest to view in the evening light after sunset, 37 degrees above the southern horizon.
Venus is the hottest, brightest planet in the Solar System and glows in the western sky for around one and a half hours after sunset and before sunrise. Because of this, it is often called the morning and evening star. Venus’s brightness is due to thick, acidic clouds that reflect most of the sunlight that reaches it back into space, making it the third brightest object in the sky after the sun and moon.
The gleaming planet is easiest to find after sunsets, where it generally sits to the west at 20 degrees above the horizon and sets about an hour after the sun. If your stargazing plans include viewing this incredible planet, remember to never look for it through binoculars or a telescope while the sun is still visible.
Comet Leonard, also called C/2021 A1, has lit up the night sky this December as it made its way north to west. On 20 December, it significantly brightened almost 10-fold in a matter of hours, and new reports are coming in that another surge of brightness is on the cards. Stargazers still have the opportunity to catch this once-in-a-lifetime sighting this week as it passes through the solar system. It is expected to reach magnitude four or better as it swings around the sun in a gravitational dance. Comet Leonard will either fragment as it heats up or depart unscathed. However, because it is already so bright, it is believed that its fragmenting is imminent.
Early this month, the comet passed close to the star Arcturus and was closest to Earth on 12 December at a distance of 21, 8 million miles. If you want a view of this stellar sight with a naked eye, you will need to be away from city pollution or use binoculars or a telescope to see it in normal city conditions. It’s currently visible very low above the southwest horizon just after sunset. You can spot it clearly just after sunset in the area left of Venus and below Jupiter across the west-southwestern horizon.
Comet Leonard was last in the solar system no less than 80,000 years ago, if ever, and now due to the effect of the sun's gravity on its orbital path, it will never return to the solar system, so this is the only chance to see it, ever!
Make the most of dark skies and brighter celestial objects this festive season, and experience sights that will leave you mesmerised! Make sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram to get your fix on everything astronomy.
Wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from the team at Astronoscope- we hope it is filled with wonder, amazement and breath taking moments just like the universe!
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