As quickly as it started, 2019 will soon be in the history books. I for one am happy to see it go. A cloudy and rainy spring, hot and humid heat waves during the summer, then the EEE mosquito threat have conspired to prevent casual stargazers and amateur astronomers alike from enjoying the night sky and all the wonders it holds. It would be great if we could end the year on a high note, but the sky gods are not smiling down on us for December.
Though the Geminids are the best meteor shower of the year, peaking on the night of Dec. 13-14, the Full Moon on Dec. 12 will overwhelm all but the brightest meteors. To complicate matters further on the peak night, that bright moon will be sitting right in the middle of the Gemini constellation. While you won’t require my usual star map to find Gemini, the proximity of the Moon to the region of the sky from where the meteors appear to radiate (near Gemini’s brightest stars, Castor and Pollux), will certainly reduce your meteor count.
However, one does not have to look directly at Gemini to catch a few of the brightest shooting stars. In fact, the Geminids are fairly bright and also have a reputation for producing exploding meteors called fireballs. My point: if the weather cooperates on peak night, do not give up on the Geminids. You might just glimpse a few bright Geminids as they enter our atmosphere at 21.75 miles per second.
Later in the month don’t forget that the Winter solstice begins at 11:19 p.m. on Dec. 21. Notice how low an arc the Sun travels across the sky. After this date and time the Sun’s arc will rise higher and higher each day as it appears to travel northward in our sky, reaching the Vernal Equinox (Spring) on March 19, 2020, at 11:50 p.m. EDT (Eastern Daylight Time). The apparent shift of the Sun’s position in the sky is the result of the Earth’s fixed axial tilt of 23.5 degrees as it revolves around the Sun. See my column Reason for the Seasons (http://www.theskyscrapers.org/reason-for-the-seasons) to refresh your knowledge on this topic.
Also, as we approach the holiday season, many folks often ask me about the mystery of the Christmas Star. An unabridged version of my latest treatise on this topic can be found on the Skyscrapers website http://www.theskyscrapers.org/mystery-of-the-christmas-star for your examination.
Unfortunately, as we move into December, Jupiter will set soon after sunset, and Saturn will follow within 90 minutes. Since the local observatories don’t open until 7 p.m., these beautiful worlds will be unobservable. However, there are a wide variety of other objects to view. As long as the observatory grounds are accessible, the telescopes will be available for you to explore “deep sky” objects within the brightest constellations of the night sky. The Orion Nebula and the Andromeda Galaxy will be well placed for exploration. Many open star clusters and beautiful double stars will await your scrutiny. And our solar system’s two outermost planets, Uranus and Neptune, will show as small blue-green orbs in the telescopes available. Knowledgeable sky interpreters will be on hand to introduce you to these and other celestial wonders. Be sure to visit each observatory’s website prior to setting out for a field trip to these facilities, as wintry conditions can force unexpected closures.
And finally, I am always looking for a great sky scene that you can easily image with just a simple camera. Just after sunset on Dec. 28, look towards the southwest sky. A waxing crescent Moon will be a mere three degrees (6 full moon diameters) from brilliant Venus. This event definitely merits being recorded.
Seagrave Memorial Observatory (http:/www.theskyscrapers.org) in North Scituate is open to the public every clear Saturday night. However, in December Seagrave will be closed on the 14th. Ladd Observatory (http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Physics/Ladd/) in Providence is open every clear Tuesday night. However, Ladd will be closed on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. The Margaret M. Jacoby Observatory at the CCRI Knight Campus in Warwick (http://www.ccri.edu/physics/observatory.htm) is open every clear Wednesday night. However, this observatory will be closed on Christmas Day night and New Year’s Day night. Frosty Drew Observatory (http://www.frostydrew.org/) in Charlestown is open every clear Friday night year-round
Happy holidays and clear skies to all.