NEW YEAR’S EXTRATERRESTRIAL FIREWORKS 

  by William J. Bechaver

Many of us will be out late Saturday night, ringing in the New Year, blowing horns and shooting off fireworks. But this year, the universe has some fireworks of its own to offer.

While outside whooping it up, look skyward, to the north east, and you may catch sight of the most spectacular display of the evening.

The Quadrantid Meteor Shower is ramping up right now, and promises to be putting on quite a show for New Years Eve. So, while gamboling out and about to celebrate the New Year, watch the heavens. You may see more than one of the fast fireballs every minute!

The Quadrantids don’t actually peak until a couple of nights later, on the early morning of Tuesday 3 January. But you should be treated to quite a show for your New Year celebration!

But the highlight of the show actually begins a bit earlier, on the evening of Monday 2 January. Just after sunset, go out in the early evening, and look to the west. The good viewing will begin just after five, while the sky is still light. 

Locate the beautiful crescent moon in the deepening blue sky. Just above it, and a little to the left, lies Mars. They will be less than a single degree apart, forming a beautiful pair. Just below, glimmers brilliant Venus, just off a pairing of its own with the Moon the preceding evening.

As the evening progresses, the minute distance between the Moon and Mars will actually decrease, until they are separated by less than two-tenths of a degree, or less than half the width of the Moon’s disk!

With a good pair of binoculars, you may be able to pick out faint Neptune. If you aim your binoculars or telescope directly at Mars, the brightest object to the lower right of the red planet is Neptune, a bluish point of light, that is actually the giant ice planet, 2.8 billion miles from Earth.  

You will have about five hours to watch the progression as the Moon sinks slowly toward the western horizon, and the grouping finally descends from view just before ten o’clock. It will be a spectacular sighting of a rare pairing in the evening sky.

Then, with the Moon saying goodnight, it leaves the sky nice and dark for act three. Turn and look to the north-east. The Big Dipper will just be rising to prominence in the northern sky. Look in its direction, and that should be the focal point for the Quadrantid Meteors, displaying peak activity that night, and into the early morning hours of Tuesday 3 January.

At its peak, the meteor shower should offer two meteors a minute, or about 120 an hour. Remember, there is nothing regular about a meteor shower, so several minutes could pass without a sighting, then you could enjoy a burst of several in a single minute. So, be persistent, focusing on the area of the sky near the handle of The Big Dipper, as it rotates into view and climbs higher into the north-east. 

With cold and crisp evenings, the skies are steady and dark, for perfect planet viewing, and even better for meteor showers. So, go out the first three or four days of the New Year, and enjoy the show, of planetary encounters, and meteoric fireworks provided by our ever fascinating universe!

Thanks for the positive feedback about our columns, and your continued interest in astronomy. If you have any questions or article requests, contact us at spacescape@rocketmail.com, or follow us on Twitter @ColoSpacEScapE for updates and additional viewing opportunities.

Check out all of our articles on line at huerfanoworldjournal.com and click on the Astronomy category or at colospacescape.wordpress.com.

 — William J. Bechaver is the Director of SPACE •· Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts [SPACE] the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.

INNER PLANETS ALIGN

     by William J. Bechaver

December usually stands out as an excellent month for astronomical viewing. Not only are the cold, crisp nights ideal, with their reputation for crystal clear skies, but the spectacular Geminid Meteors occur each December, and provide spectacular views.

However, this year, the peak night for these alien visitors, unfortunately falls on the night of the full moon, so the brightness of the sky will interfere with our views on the traditionally best night.

But, the term on the meteor shower is such that this year, some of the early arrivals can be seen right now. So, go out this week in the early morning hours, and look to the north. You could see a meteor a minute during some more spectacular bursts. Get out there soon, though, because the later you wait in the week, the more will the moonlight interfere. 

Right now, the Moon is setting just after midnight. But by this time next week, it will remain in the sky all night long, during peak hours, until the sun rises.

Dread not! There are two other meteor showers to be observed before the end of the year, and though they usually take a back seat to the mighty Geminids, this year, they may provide our better opportunity to see spectacular meteors.

While the morning sky is ablaze with early meteors, the evening sky provides a unique look at the inner planets, as they are stretched across the sky after sunset in a relatively systematic manner. 

Just after sunset, look to the south-west. Mercury is easily visible, but would be a little difficult to locate, if it weren’t for the little guy’s big, and bright, sister.

First, find Venus. It’s the the brilliant point high in the west after sunset. From her, draw a line down to the point on the horizon where the Sun recently set. There, in the evening glow, you should be able to easily pick out fainter Mercury. It will be the first point emerging from the glow, about midway between Venus and the horizon, before any of the faint stars in the area are visible.

Then, continue the line upward from Mercury through Venus, and much higher in the sky, they will point you to fainter, but distinctively red, Mars. These are the other three inner planets, aligned in order from the Sun, and generally equidistant from each other. 

Mercury will set just before six, more than an hour after the Sun is gone, so the sky should be dark to watch the tiny planets descent. Venus will set just before eight, and Mars will be gone by the time ten o’clock rolls around. 

So, get out shortly after sunset and witness the inner planets, equally spaced, and in order, as they parade through the evening sky.

Thanks for the positive feedback about our columns, and your continued interest in astronomy. If you have any questions or article requests, contact us at spacescape@rocketmail.com, or follow us on Twitter @ColoSpacEScapE for updates and additional viewing opportunities. Check out all of our articles on line at  huerfanoworldjournal.com/category/astronomy. We are SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.

 — William J. Bechaver is the Director of SPACE • · Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts [SPACE].