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Northern Rockies Skies for December: The Rich Winter Skies

November 25, 2014
man sitting in front of planets and space background
Carl Sagan is arguably the most influential popularizer of physical sciences to wide audiences. (NASA Photo)

A monthly look at the night skies of the northern Rocky Mountains, written by astronomers Ron Canterna, University of Wyoming, and Jay Norris, Challis, Idaho Observatory.

The winter night skies are rich with bright stars, impressive and remarkable constellations, and unique deep sky objects.

In this month’s sky chart, we have identified many of these objects. The most important and impressive is the Orion constellation with major deep-sky objects; the most important is M 42, the Orion Nebula, where star formation is underway.

To the south is Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. To the northeast of Orion is the constellation Taurus the bull (bright star Aldebaran), which houses the Hyades, the closest star cluster to the sun. To the northeast of Taurus is the young star cluster, Pleiades, with its bright blue giants. To the northwest of Orion is Procyon and the twins, the Gemini constellation, with its bright stars Castor and Pollux.

Look to the north and you will see Cassiopeia (the stretched out “W”) and the star Capella in Auriga. Finally, locate the great square of Pegasus on the east. To the northwest of the square you can see (in a very dark site) the nearest spiral galaxy, M31, the Andromeda. Please take the time to enjoy this wonderful gift of the skies.

Planets and Meteor Showers:  Mars sets an hour or so after sunset; Jupiter is in Leo and rises around 10 p.m. It can be viewed most of the evening. Saturn will rises in the east about one hour before sunrise. The Geminid meteor showers peak around Dec. 13 and 14 and are usually rich in numbers.

December 2014 Interest: Famous Astronomers:  Carl Sagan

(Best URL:

Carl Sagan (1934–1996) was among the most prominent thinkers and scientists of the 20th century, and arguably the greatest popularizer of the physical sciences to wide audiences. His program "Cosmos" holds the record as the most watched series in American public television history. Sagan credited his early interests in science to his parents' instilling of wonderment and critical inquisitiveness, although neither was of the scientific persuasion.

Sagan's work spanned several fields of astronomy, concentrating originally on planetary science. He was one of the first to do critical work on Venus' surface temperature, correctly suggesting that its thick carbon dioxide atmosphere gave rise to a super greenhouse effect. Sagan suggested that Saturn's moon, Titan, had a liquid ocean under its surface; and that Jupiter's moon, Europa, also could have a water ocean hidden beneath the surface -- a conjecture confirmed much later by the Galileo spacecraft.

But Sagan is perhaps best known for fostering research into the possibilities for extraterrestrial life; his work included demonstrations that some of life's essential amino acids could be made from irradiated basic chemicals. While he thought that actual alien contact via interstellar travel would be highly unlikely due to physical constraint considerations, Sagan instead worked with astronomer Frank Drake to send the first radio signal communications toward candidate life-supporting stellar systems using the Arecibo telescope. He continued to promote the search for extraterrestrial intelligence the rest of his career.

From the advent of NASA in the 1950s, Sagan was an adviser on moon and planetary missions and frequent adviser to Congress on space science. He co-wrote hundreds of scientific articles and published more than 20 popular science books. Sagan also promoted cataloguing small asteroids with orbits near Earth that could potentially impact, an effort that continues presently.

He was often identified with the phrase "billions and billions" (of stars in the universe), which he claimed never to have said -- in fact, it was Johnny Carson parodying Sagan during his appearance on “The Tonight Show.” In the end, however, Sagan gave in: his last book was titled "Billions and Billions:  Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium," published in 1997 after his death.

To see this month’s sky chart, click here.

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