This year saw the death of Jack Horkheimer who for 25 years was known to PBS viewers as the "Star Gazer" (formerly the "Star Hustler"). He began each weekly 5-minute show with his exuberant trademark, "Greetings, greetings, fellow star gazers," and ended with an invitation to "Keep looking up." His enthusiasm for naked-eye astronomy was as zany as it was irresistible.
The following adaptations of two of my previous columns is a tribute to the beloved Star Gazer.
In Christianity the manger symbolizes the birth of Jesus while the cross represents his death. As pointed out by Horkheimer, the Christmas season is the one time of year when the astronomical versions of these symbols are simultaneously in the night sky in the early evening.
Low in the northwest is the constellation Cygnus the Swan, the middle five stars of which form a pattern informally called the Northern Cross. At 9 p.m. the base of the cross stands near the horizon with the brightest star at the top 25 degrees above and the crossbar spanning 15 degrees. (The width of your fist held at arm’s length is 10 degrees.)
Coming up in the east is the constellation Cancer the Crab, home of the lovely star cluster popularly known as the Beehive, but also named Praesepe, Latin for "manger."
Under dark, moonless skies, Praesepe appears as a soft fuzzy patch larger than a full Moon. Binoculars resolve dozens of individual stars.
While both the cross and the manger are briefly in the sky at the same time, seeing them concurrently is a challenge. As the cross begins sinking into the horizon, the manger is still too low for easy viewing.
So it’s best to look for the cross around 7:30 p.m. when its top is 35 degrees and its bottom 15 degrees above the horizon. The base star, which is not very bright, is flanked by two bright stars, Altair (left) and Vega. By 10:30 p.m. the manger has risen to 30 degrees above the horizon and is much easier to see.
This season, being near the winter solstice, is special in many religions. So whatever yours, the Stargazer wishes you and yours peace, joy and especially love. And, deep gratitude to Star Gazer Jack Horkheimer who shared his wonderful life with millions and whose self-written epitaph is priceless: "Keep Looking Up was my life’s admonition, I can do little else in my present position."
* Dec. 27 Mon.: The Moon is at 3rd quarter.
* 29 Wed. morning: The star Spica is above the crescent Moon with Saturn further above in the southeast.
* 31 Fri. morning: A crescent Moon is to the lower right of brilliant Venus in the southeast; the next morning the Moon is above Antares; and by Sun. morning a very thin crescent Moon is to the lower left of Mercury near the horizon at dawn.
* 2-5 Sun.- Wed. evenings: Bright Jupiter passes within a moonwidth to the lower left to left of much fainter Uranus; use binoculars to spot Uranus.
* 3 Mon.: Earth is at perihelion, its nearest point to the Sun in its annual orbit at a distance of 91.4 million miles.
* 3/4 Mon. night/Tue. morning: The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks to the north with no Moon interference all night; most meteor showers are best in the morning, but greater activity is expected in the evening this time.
* 4 Mon.: The new Moon produces a partial solar eclipse but not in our part of the world.
* 9 Sun. & 10 Mon. evenings: The Moon passes within a fist-width (held at arm’s length) of Jupiter.
* 11-22 mornings: Venus passes within a fist-width to the left of Scorpius’ bright reddish star, Antares.
* 12 Wed. evening: The Moon is at 1st quarter.
Naked-eye Planets. Evening: Jupiter, bright in the southwest, sets before midnight. Morning: Venus dominates the southeast with Saturn higher above. Mercury makes an appearance near the southeastern horizon early in the month.
Stargazer appears every other week. Paul Derrick is an amateur astronomer who lives in Waco. Contact him at 918 N. 30th, Waco, 76707, (254) 753-6920 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See the Stargazer Web site at stargazerpaul.com.