The celestial trio of Venus, Mars and Jupiter are spreading wider apart, but they are still slightly dominating their part of the south to south-eastern sky in the last hour before sunrise. Right now they’re pretty much hugging the constellation Virgo. Here is what my daughters and I spotted on our way to our respective buses to school and work in the early morning hours of December 15th, with a cool and clear sky above us.
Photos © Bjørnar Andre Haveland
Click images to see larger versions.
The original iPhone 5s shot, at 07:48 (my attempt to use the Nikon was thwarted by the bus arriving right on time for a change). On most screens this will show up as far too dark to see much more than the bright specks of Venus (left) and Jupiter (right). With a bit of luck, optimal illumination, fabulously good eyesight and an impressively clean monitor, you’ll just possibly spot Mars as a barely distinguishable pixel somewhere in the middle.
With the exposure adjusted in the extreme, however, Mars and a neighbouring star both show up reasonably clearly, Mars being the upper right of the two, almost precisely smack bam in the middle between Venus and Jupiter.
Labels, for clarity, because mostentimes a bright dot in the sky looks just like any other bright dot in the sky, of which there are a good many. The one labelled Spica is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, and as far as I can tell from diagrams, lacking a degree in stellar anatomy, it seems to constitute the left hip joint of the virgin in question, assuming she is facing us, otherwise it has to be the right hip joint and we’re looking at her bum. Shame on us!
Screenshot from astronomy app Star Walk, showing the same section of the sky, with the planets and surrounding stars in their respective locations, for reference. Incidentally, the bright white orb to Mars’ immediate left is the asteroid 1998 KY26, about 15 metres across, which passed within 800,000 km from Earth on June 8, 1998, but is now about 1.51 AU away, almost as far as Mars, at 1.84 AU. And no, I’m afraid you won’t be able to spot it with the naked eye (in comparison, the Chelyabinsk meteor in 2013 was estimated to be about 20m across).
Within the next couple of weeks Venus will drift even further away from the others, so that around December 30th, Mars will be precisely dead center. At that time, the waning Moon will also come swooshing through the trio, possibly making for some nice conjunctions as its crescent grows thinner. On January 6th, the Moon, with just a sliver of a crescent left, catches up with Venus and Saturn, so if you can actually see Saturn, it’ll likely be a lovely little group.
We also saw not one but two shooting stars in that precise part of the sky, a few minutes apart, probably leftovers from the Geminids shower during the night. Now, I hasten to point out that this is a composite of the above original, and a meteor trail taken from another picture. Seeing as meteors wait for no man, and to first spot and then photograph one in the same take requires more time than any meteor is willing to hang around for, I had to resort to low-level Photoshop cheating in order to illustrate the event. My apologies.