Surf's Up! No, I'm not reverting to my misspent youth in South Dakota (where we sang along with the Beach Boys on the radio, but had neither shoreline nor surf). Rather, I'd like to recommend some of my favorite internet web-sites for all of the web-surfers out there.
A site that I check every day, and even grab images as screen savers and wallpaper, is the "Astronomy Picture of the Day" at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. A team of astronomers updates the site daily with a fresh, exciting image and an explanation at a level suitable for the general public. The narrative is rich with active links to other sites, and there is a searchable index so you can see what else has made "APOD" over the years.
Ever wonder what that satellite was that you saw last night? Check out the satellite tracker at http://www.heavens-above.com/ The site is in Germany, but the web pages are in English.
Phil Plait bills himself as "astronomer and curmudgeon," maintaining a web address which offers clear explanations and debunking for many "goofs, gaffes, and just plain 'bad astronomy.'" Find out what's real and what's hokum, at http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/ Note: this link seems to have died. Check back, we'll try to fix it!
If you want to see how your tax dollars are used to support astronomy research, you'll love the Hubble Space Telescope web site. The latest images, with links and index to the entire data set can be found at http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/. Enjoy the pictures, you paid for them!
On a similar note, for those who like Mars, a good link, which gets you to all of the Mars- exploration sites, is http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/MPF/ In fact, you can explore the entire JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory - which is misnamed, since virtually all they do is planetary exploration via space probes) site from http://www.jpl.nasa.gov If Jupiter's your favorite, check out the Galileo site while you're at the JPL address. Point your browser to http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/galileo/
Lunar phases for December: First Quarter at 10:55 pm on the 3rd; Full Moon on the 11th at 4:03 am; Last Quarter on the 17th at 7:41 pm; New Moon on the 25th (Merry Christmas!).
We'll see a partial solar eclipse on Christmas Day, if the clouds allow. Expect "first contact" at about 11:00 am, with the deepest eclipse at about 12:45 pm. The whole show will be over by 2:30. Please, don't stare at the Sun, nor try to rely on dark glasses. The safest way to observe is with a simple pinhole camera - put a piece of white paper on the inside of a box. Punch a small hole (pencil diameter is fine) on the opposite side. Allow sunlight to enter the hole and shine on the white paper, you'll see the eclipse without damaging your eyes.
Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn are all bright at dusk. Venus is better described as "brilliant" to the southwest. By the end of the month it will be setting nearly 3 ½ hours after sunset - check it out with binoculars or a small telescope as it catches up to Earth in its orbit. Jupiter and Saturn are to the east, with Saturn about 10 degrees above and to the right of the brighter Jupiter. Jupiter and Saturn are still visible to the west several hours before dawn. Saturn sets about an hour before the sun rises, with Jupiter setting about 45 minutes later. Mars is to the southeast before dawn, near the bright star Spica.
Our mid-month view at about 8:00 pm finds the Andromeda Galaxy near zenith (straight up). It lies just a bit south of the Milky Way, which bisects the sky nearly west to east. Towards the northwest, you'll see the bright "northern cross" of Cygnus, now standing like a slightly askew crucifix above the horizon. The bright star Vega is closer to the horizon, almost directly below Deneb, which marks the "head" of the cross. Back along the Milky Way we find Cassiopeia, now looking like a giant M over the northern horizon, with Polaris about halfway to the horizon below it. Ursa Major is very low to the NNE, probably obscured by trees and buildings. Gemini lies parallel to the eastern horizon, with its twin stars Castor and Pollux towards the north, and Castor above Pollux. Directly above the Twins we find bright Capella in the constellation Auriga. Orion is also on its side, just to the south of Gemini, with Aldebaran and the Pleiades in Taurus directly above. As winter progresses, we'll see more of these stars and constellations!
George F. Spagna, Jr.