December’s celestial events
If the cloudy weather dissipates and you can withstand the chill, December offers several unique opportunities for nighttime sky gazing.
Space.com reports the Geminid meteor shower peaks tonight into tomorrow with predictions of up to 120 sightings per hour.
Geminid meteors were first observed and recorded in 1862. Their name derives from the constellation of Gemini, which is a reference point to watch for the meteors. Geminids are thought to originate from a curious asteroid/rock comet called 3200 Phaethon.
This year’s shower occurs during the first quarter moon, which is good news. With the moon setting just after 10:30 p.m. tonight, conditions could be ripe for some prime meteor spotting. Peak time for viewing will be around 2 a.m.
If you plan to go “meteor hunting,” be prepared with warm clothes and blankets. Your eyes need time to adjust; exposure to any kind of bright light, including the light from a phone screen, should be avoided before heading outside. Look up from the darkest, most open spot you can. And past experience has taught me that sipping from a thermos of hot cocoa while you’re out there doesn’t hurt.
Meteors from this year’s Geminid shower began appearing in the sky during the early part of December and will last until the 17th. I was lucky enough to spot one on an evening walk last week; a brilliant light shot across the sky and was trailed by a faint silvery band. The meteor almost seemed to pause before disappearing, leaving me magnificently exhilarated. You can bet I’ll be bundled up and looking for some more tonight.
Though already faintly visible in the December sky, a comet named 46P/Wirtanen makes its closest pass to Earth on Sunday. Its relatively close proximity of around 7 million miles will make the comet seem much brighter than it usually appears.
This comet passes Earth every 5.4 years and is the brightest comet in the sky this year. Discovered Jan. 17, 1948, by Carl Wirtanen at California’s Lick Observatory, 46P/Wirtanen has a diameter of nearly three quarters of a mile and may be visible to the naked eye. Binoculars will enhance the view.
Comet gazers can try to spot a moving point of light in the southeastern sky starting around 7 p.m. The comet should be visible near the Pleiades star cluster in the Taurus constellation.
EarthSky.org advises that once you’ve spotted the three distinctive stars in Orion’s belt, follow the invisible line they create toward the bright, orange-hued star Aldebaran, which forms the eye of the bull in Taurus. Continue to draw your gaze toward the Pleiades, which resemble a tiny version of the Big Dipper.
Full moon to celebrate the start of Winter
December’s full moon bathes the sky in light the night of Dec. 22, a day after the Winter Solstice.
The Farmer’s Almanac reports that “In Native American cultures which tracked the calendar by the Moons,” this moon was referenced as the Full Cold Moon because it occurs when “winter cold fastens its grip and the nights become long and dark.” It is also known as the Long Night’s Moon because of its proximity to the solstice, the day with the least amount of sunlight in a year.
This beautiful, bright, full moon is a wonderful way to celebrate the return of the light.
Amy Roby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.