Jane Houston Jones: What's Up for December? A lunar eclipse and a planetary trio grace the morning sky.
Hello and welcome! I'm Jane Houston Jones at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The earliest stargazers noticed star-like objects that changed position with respect to the stars. They also saw eclipses, like the lunar eclipse we get to see this month.
During an eclipse Earth's shadow crosses the moon and the moon darkens. It may appear gray, brown or shades of red or orange, depending on how much dust is in our atmosphere.
This eclipse is best seen from North America. It occurs pre-dawn on the East Coast, in the middle of the night on the West Coast and the night before, in the late evening, in Alaska and Hawaii.
To get to the total eclipse, when the moon is fully within the Earth's shadow, takes a little over an hour. You won't need a telescope to view the eclipse, but if you have one you'll be able to see individual craters and other features as they pass in and out of shadow.
Venus is high and bright before dawn. It shrinks in size as the lit crescent widens to 50 percent by year-end.
Mercury pops into the morning sky in late December. Look for it 10 degrees above the horizon just before sunrise.
On March 18, 2011, MESSENGER will become the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury. MESSENGER followed a path through the inner solar system, including one flyby of Earth, two flybys of Venus and three flybys of Mercury. This impressive journey is returning the first new spacecraft data from Mercury since NASA's Mariner 10 mission thirty years ago.
Saturn is the third morning planet to watch this month. It won't be visible in the early evening for a few more months, but why wait? The pretty rings are tilted open more than 10 degrees right now.
The Cassini spacecraft makes a flyby over the north pole of the moon Enceladus on the same night as the lunar eclipse. The fields and particles instruments will be trying to sniff anything that the moon might be emitting.
Learn more about this month's Year of the Solar System resources at http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/yss
And you can learn all about NASA missions at www.nasa.gov
That's all for this month. I'm Jane Houston Jones.