Go to any bookstore and you will find at least a half dozen books on 2012, specifically Dec. 21, 2012, with premises ranging from global disaster to the ushering in of a new age of peace. The date is when many believe the Mayan calendar ends after a “long count” of 5,126 years. It is also when the solar system is aligned with our galactic center for the first time in nearly 26,000 years, the time it takes for the Milky Way to precess about the galactic center. However another, much closer, date has been put forward. Rod Serling (Twilight Zone), in a 1975 TV program, “The Outer Space Connection,” said the date is actually Dec. 24, 2011, as does Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock) in a 1978 documentary, “In Search of Mayan Mysteries.” This date comes from a different interpretation of the Mayan calendar. We’ll know soon if the latter date is right but have to be patient for a year for the other.
Focus on the planets
Mercury rises low in the southeast an hour before dawn toward the end of the month. The best chance to view Mercury comes on Dec. 23, when it rises about an hour and a half before dawn with a crescent moon to its upper right.
Venus is high in the west-southwest at sundown and climbs ever higher as the month progresses. Look for Venus among the stars of Sagittarius, where it is joined by the thin crescent moon the day after Christmas.
Mars rises on the eastern horizon around midnight as December opens and an hour earlier by month’s end. Mars continues to brighten throughout the month and will become large enough for surface features to be picked out in backyard telescopes.
Jupiter, high in the east at dusk, will dim and start to appear smaller in size, however, features such as its four moons will continue to be visible. Jupiter will be visited by a waxing gibbous moon on Dec. 6.
Saturn rises in the southeast an hour or so before dawn. The bright star to Saturn’s immediate right is Spica.
Uranus in Pisces and Neptune in Aquarius are visible shortly after dark by means of a telescope. Use the finders chart at SkyandTelescope.com/uranusneptune.
1: Sunrise, 6:52 a.m.; sunset, 3:56 p.m.
2: Moon in first quarter, 4:52 a.m.
6: The moon is at apogee, or farthest distance from Earth. The moon lies just to the upper left of Jupiter in the eastern sky an hour after sunset.
10: Full moon, 9:37 a.m. The full moon of December is called the Cold Moon, Snow Moon, Long Night Moon and the Moon Before Yule. A total eclipse of the moon will take place today, but unfortunately, it will have set in the eastern U.S. before the eclipse begins.
14: The Geminid meteor shower peaks today, however, the 80 plus meteors normally expected will be largely obscured by the recently-full moon.
18: Moon in last quarter, 7:48 p.m. The sun enters Sagittarius on the ecliptic.
20: Saturn, Spica, and the moon form a triangle in the southeastern sky an hour before sunrise.
22: Winter solstice, 12:30 a.m. The sun has reached its southernmost point below the celestial equator, marking the first day of winter in the northern hemisphere. The sun enters the astrological sign of Capricornus at the solstice but astronomically is still in Sagittarius.
23: A very thin crescent moon lies just below Mercury low in the southeast about an hour before sunrise.
24: New moon, 1:07 p.m.
25: Merry Christmas!
26: The thin crescent moon lies just to the right of Venus on the western horizon an hour after sunset.
31: Sunrise, 7:13 a.m.; sunset, 4:04 p.m.