Heavenly gift awaits skywatchers Christmas night

Jupiter and the waxing gibbous moon will pair up closely on Christmas night Dec. 25. Taurus’ brightest star Aldebaran will also be nearby. This map shows the sky facing east around 6:30 p.m. CST. Created with Stellarium

Don’t nod off too early after your Christmas feast or you’ll miss the astronomical dessert. Jupiter and the moon will be stacked like strawberries on shortcake all night long.

You may remember their conjunction last month, but this time around the duo will make an even more compact pair. They’ll be just a half degree or one moon diameter apart when closest around 5:30 p.m. (CST). Throw on a coat, walk outside and face east during evening twilight or later to get a good look.

The two will rise together side by side in the northeast around 2:30 p.m. that afternoon only 1 degree – two full moons – apart. Just before sunset, the moon will be high enough in the sky to sight Jupiter through binoculars to its upper left. Three hours later, the moon lines up under Jupiter in conjunction and then slowly slides away from the planet overnight.

View through 7x-10x binoculars Christmas evening across the Midwestern U.S. Three moons of Jupiter will be visible very close on either side of the planet: Callisto (IV), Ganymede (III) and Europa (II). Io is tucked between the planet and Europa and easy to see in a small telescope.

When darkness falls and the presents have been opened, you’re in for a great sight and a wonderful way to top off the holiday. Could it have been a similar conjunction of the moon and brilliant Jupiter in the eastern sky that inspired the Magi of the Bible on their storied journey? Other planetary conjunctions, a nova and even a supernova have been proposed, but we’ll probably never know the exact explanation for the “star in Bethlehem”.

Jupiter photographed on Dec. 22, 2012 through a 14-inch telescope by Philippine amateur astronomer Christopher Go. The Great Red Spot is about twice the size of the Earth and occupies an indentation in the planet’s SEB. Credit and copyright: Christopher Go

Binoculars users who can steady their instruments on a tripod or other reinforcement can see three of Jupiter’s four brightest moons Christmas evening. The 4th moon Io is too near the planet to see without a telescope.

Telescope users who are out early – before 6:15 p.m. CST – should watch for the tiny, pitch black shadow of Io along the edge of Jupiter’s Southern Equatorial cloud belt. The event is called a shadow transit and ends at 6:17 p.m.

Later around 10:30 p.m., the Great Red Spot rotates around from the east and remains visible until about 1 a.m. Look for a pale red-orange oval indentation in the SEB. Expectation warning – the feature is rather delicate, not nearly as dark and obvious as you’ve seen in photos. But if the air is steady and your telescope’s optics have had time to cool down, a 6-inch or larger scope will show it well.

Merry Christmas from the sky!

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

15 thoughts on “Heavenly gift awaits skywatchers Christmas night

  1. Hi Bob
    I sent you an e-mail yesterday but I don’t know how often you check so I thought it best to ask you here lol, what I was wanting to know was I was reading up on something and someone left a comment which was not on the topic I was reading so it was just random, anyway the person just wrote, 21 December stereo ahead gigantic comet 00:54:24 UT, that was all they wrote and was wondering if you knew anything about it as it could be nothing and the person was just scare mongering to do with that 2012 baloney or could it possibly be c/2012K5 Linear, I’m hoping you maybe know one way or another and someone else had wrote another comment about a huge red blob found on WWT and google but I figured that out to be CW Leonis just someone else with scare tactics. Well hopefully you know ig that so called ‘comet’ was real or not, thanks Bob

  2. Sorry Bob, I just realised that this person had posted this on the 20 Dec, so it could just as well been the 2012 hype, so sorry if it was.

  3. Sorry Bob that last comment I left it was as if I had said the answer to it but can you say if that’s right about the so called ‘comet’ whether it’s real or just a hoax, and sorry for being a pest but since it’s Christmas tomorrow I’m sure you can let me off just this once

  4. As we say here in Hawaii, “Mele Kalikimaka!”

    I hope you have/had the BEST and most RELAXING Christmas you possibly could. You deserve it more than others and thank you for being the “gift” that you are for your honest level headed answers to our (sometimes) silly questions. You have the patience of a SAINT! I guess that comes in handy if you are a “stargazer”. (Mixed blessing…)

    Aloha For Now!

  5. Overcast here, so I’m looking forward to enjoy your picture, I’m sure you’re gonna take one… :) Merry Xmas again Bob!

  6. Dear Bob I am new to your site and really love it. As a person who often looks at the night sky and notices things; I now have a quick and easy reference for what I am seeing. Thank you so much! It felt awful to be so clueless before! Happy holidays!

    • Hi Denise,
      Glad you found it and stop by anytime with a question. 2013 looks like it will have some very special celestial events – we’ll check out what’s coming later this week.

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