With the time change dark comes early and, until Dec. 21, it grows ever darker earlier in the evening and stays that way later in the morning.
On the plus side, that means the opportunity to look at the stars increases. It’s chilly, of course, but put on the parka, stocking hat and warm gloves and head outdoors to look up at the sky for some upcoming celestial treats.
The constellation Orion is back in the night sky, an eternal marker of the change of the seasons. Venus is, once again, prominent as the brightest “star” in the winter sky and the planet attains its greatest brilliancy in the evening sky Dec. 5.
Venus isn’t the only visible planet in the night sky now. It is joined by Jupiter and Saturn. It was these two planets that made the “great conjunction” with the Winter Solstice last year. That’s when the two planets appeared next to each other. While they won’t be that close to each other this time, by the end of November, Saturn sits nearly midway between Jupiter and Venus, forming planetary bookends.
The moon puts on a show with the next full moon, known as the “frost moon,” on Thursday with a partial eclipse.
A full or partial lunar eclipse occurs only during a full moon and when the earth, sun and moon are in alignment. The moon lacks its own light, but shines because its surface reflects the sun’s rays.
During a total lunar eclipse, the earth comes between the sun and the moon and blocks any direct sunlight from reaching the moon. The sun casts the earth’s shadow on the moon’s surface and during an eclipse it appears a brick red color because of dust in the earth’s atmosphere. That red color is why the lunar eclipse is called a “blood moon.”
A partial eclipse lacks full coverage of the moon, but with this one 97% of the moon will be in shadow, making it well worth getting up in the middle of the night to see.
This partial eclipse makes the record books as the longest partial eclipse of the century. Night owls can enjoy the eclipse starting at 11:02 p.m. and it ends at 3:47 a.m. The partial eclipse will be at maximum at 2:02 a.m.
It will be visible, assuming clouds don’t ruin the show, for 3 hours, 28 minutes. Compare this to the last full lunar eclipse this last May 26 that lasted 1 hour, 15 minutes. Most eclipses, both full and partial, last less than two hours, so this one far surpasses others.
Another celestial delight is still a question mark on just how much of a delight it will become. That is the comet Leonard. It was first discovered by astronomer Greg Leonard on Jan. 3 this year. It has been drawing closer to Earth since, and it is estimated to reach its closest approach to our planet Dec. 12. That is likely the last chance for observers to spot the comet in the evenings before it transitions to the morning sky.
Many likely remember Neowise, which became visible to the naked eye last July. That comet produced many oohs and aahs with its distinct tail in the darkened night sky.
Leonard will be close to the horizon, making it more difficult to find, but it should be viewable with binoculars starting in early December. It’s possible it will be visible to the naked eye, but its peak intensity is still difficult to predict.
Its location by early December is not far from the Big Dipper. From the end of the dipper handle, look slightly closer to the horizon and to the east at about 90 minutes before sunrise.
For meteor shower buffs, the Leonid meteor shower, radiating from the constellation Leo the Lion, peaks Nov. 17 before dawn.
Another final big event for 2021 requires a trip to Antarctica. On Dec. 4, those in Antarctica and South Africa will be treated with a total solar eclipse. That is when the moon comes between the sun and earth and casts the darkest part of its shadow on the earth.
Wyoming residents recall the total solar eclipse that crossed Wyoming on Aug. 21, 2017. That’s when we all donned special eclipse-gazing glasses and watched in awe as day turned to night with the sun’s corona forming a white flame encircling the moon. The next one visible from the United States isn’t until April 8, 2024.
Until then, we’ll still find plenty of celestial treats to make stargazing worth looking up at the night sky.