December Skies


Article Contributed by
Walt Pickut
Martz/Kohl Board of Directors

December at the Martz/Kohl Observatory in Frewsburg might find a few astronomers looking for that famous Christmas Star, but more likely they will continue studying the night sky for novas, supernovas, new comets and Earth grazing asteroids or any one of myriad other wonders to be seen on the year’ longest nights.

December is always an excellent month for stargazers, with two meteor showers and Venus brilliantly dominating the western sky just after sunset. And just before sunrise Jupiter will outshine every star in the eastern sky.

13 Dec. The Geminid meteor shower, one of the best of the year, will show off as many as 100 to150 meteors per hour, though the full moon will wash out a few of the faintest ones. The Geminid meteors are relatively slow moving, often very bright and frequently quite colorful.

21 Dec. December Solstice arrives at 09:44 UTC. The Sun reaches its most southerly point in the sky making this the shortest day of the year and the first day of winter in the northern hemisphere.

22 Dec. The Ursid meteor shower peaks tonight. The waning crescent Moon creates a dark sky for this rather modest shower of up to 10 meteors per hour originating near the constellation Ursa Minor, the Big Dipper.

22 Dec. Look at the eastern sky before sunrise to see Jupiter, brighter than any star. Binoculars will easily reveal the giant planet’s four largest moons, the ones first seen by Galileo one dark December night in 1609.

31 Dec. On the last night of 2016, Neptune and Mars put on their own New Year’s Eve sky show. Though they are really hundreds of millions of miles apart, they will be lined up to appear within a mere 0.1º of each other, the width of a finger at arm’s length. Viewers will need binoculars or a telescope, however, to see the fainter Neptune. This is their closest visual approach in more than 700 years!

Looking for a great Christmas gift that’s truly different this year? How about a family membership to the Martz/Kohl Observatory, world famous astronomers and scientists to meet at regular monthly lectures, access to some of the finest research telescopes in the Northeast and a great group of amateur astronomy enthusiasts… a wonderful place for students and their parents with an interest in the sciences.

And as a special treat to help stay warm on those cold winter observing nights or at home all winter long, guests and members at the observatory can now purchase tickets (limited available ticket numbers will increase chances to win) for a valuable and exquisitely handmade Amish quilt crafted for a queen size bed. Drawing will be at the June, 2017 General Meeting.

Martz/Kohl is now also in the process of inviting all Chautauqua County schools to begin using their access to the observatory’s telescopes for classroom and astronomy club activities. Observatory board members will be reaching out to schools, organizations and PTAs to facilitate setting up viewing opportunities for all interested parties.

To learn more about the Martz/Kohl Observatory log on to or visit any Wednesday evening. Visiting hours or tours and viewing opportunities are posted on the website.

For a deeper look at the night sky, planets, stars and the entire universe, visit the Martz/Kohl Observatory online at, check the schedule of events and visit in person. Thank you to Hall and Laury Opticians for sponsoring these Martz/Kohl column.