December night sky viewing is awesome…just chill.
Brighter stars shine in the evening sky at this time of year, and in December we have the bright planets Saturn and Jupiter visible in the evening. There is also a close passage of Mars by us earlier this month.
The Geminid meteor shower, one of the best of the year, peaks on the night of Wednesday, December 14. Later in the night, the number of meteors is better, but some Geminids can be seen in the early evening. The best time to see the greatest number of meteors will be after midnight, when a single observer can see about 100 per hour, but only from a very dark rural location where the whole sky is visible.
This year, however, the waning gibbous moon will be in the sky after midnight, rising locally at 10:58 p.m. on December 14. The bright moon may make fainter Geminid meteors harder to see, which could affect meteor counts.
The “radiant” of the Geminid shower from which all the Geminid meteors seem to originate is found near the star Castor in the constellation of Gemini, the twins. This area is high overhead around 2am, so it’s a good time to watch for meteors. Meteors can appear anywhere in the sky.
The radiant shower creates a perspective effect as the Earth plunges into the stream of particles that create meteor showers. We see a variation of the radiant effect when driving through a snowstorm at night when all the snowflakes appear to be coming from a point straight ahead.
Fayetteville-Cumberland Parks and Recreation is hosting a free Geminid meteor shower watch event at Lake Rim Park on Tar Kiln Drive in West Fayetteville from 8-10 p.m. Dec. 14. After a brief indoor program on comets, meteors and asteroids, you’ll then head outdoors where there will be general sky viewing advice offered between the meteors as well as views of the planets Jupiter, Mars and Saturn.
The event is free but prior registration is required. You can call the park at 910-433-1018 during regular business hours to register. By registering, you will be contacted by the park if the event is canceled due to weather.
If a December evening is clear, it will be chilly, so be sure to dress for the cold if you attend.
March is approaching
Speaking of Mars, the Red Planet will pass Earth very closely in early December.
On Thursday, Mars will be “almost” 50 million kilometers away.
For a few weeks around that date, owners of good quality telescopes may be able to glimpse surface features on the distant planet. Mars will always appear small in the telescope eyepiece since the planet is only half the size of Earth.
The first noticeable detail in a telescope view of Mars will be the planet’s northern polar cap. A white cloud has covered the north pole of Mars for several weeks. Some of the larger dark surface features on Mars may also be visible.
Keep in mind, however, that Mars is small and still very far away, so larger telescopes will give a better view than smaller instruments.
However, you don’t need big or small telescopes to see Mars in the sky. It appears as a bright reddish object rising in the east as darkness falls. Mars does not twinkle like the surrounding stars and appears as a bright red ember in the early evening eastern sky.
You can watch the full moon just barely cover Mars around 11 p.m. on the night of December 7. The view through a small telescope and binoculars will show Mars very close to the moon.
There are close encounters of the moon with other planets in the evening sky. Jupiter will hang above the moon’s upper left on Thursday evening. December 26 is the planet Saturn to the right of the moon.
If you buy a telescope for Christmas, a clear Christmas night will show a thin crescent moon above Saturn in the southwest.
Whether the telescope is a gift for someone younger or older, the nights after Christmas should offer beautiful views of the moon, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars.
If you have a question about astronomy, send it to Backyard Universe PO Box 297, Stedman, NC 28391 or email email@example.com
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