GEMINID METEOR SHOWER PROMISES SUPERIOR SHOWING

by William J. Bechaver

The winter nights are crisp and cold, and around here, primarily dry, lending themselves perfectly to dark, clear, steady skies ideal for astronomy, star gazing, and meteor watching.

Mars is still prominent in the sky as the Sun sets, and remains the only dominant planet left to us in the evening sky. But even it is fading into the distance.

The Moon is a fine, beautiful crescent in the evening sky this week, perfect for viewing. On especially clear nights, go out and see if you can view the dark side of the Moon. The nights being so clear, it is common to view the beautiful crescent, and the amazing dark shaded side of the Moon, lost in the shadow. The light illuminating that dark portion of the Moon is actually from Earth. Just as the full Moon brightens the night here on Earth, so too does the Earth brighten the sky during the night on the Moon. It is the reflected light from the full Earth that brightens the dark side of the Moon, allowing us to see the outline of the full lunar orb on clear, dark nights.

This week, the Moon will be progressing on toward the first-quarter phase, and on the night of Thursday 13 December, it will set about an hour before midnight. This is fortuitous for us here on Earth, for this week, the amazing Geminid Meteor Shower peaks on that very same night.

The Geminid Meteor Shower is one of the most plentiful and prolific meteor showers of the year. And this year, with the Moon setting in the late evening, the night will be dominated by the amazing meteor display.

Further, the constellation Gemini is rising high in the sky by the time the Moon sets, and will be practically directly overhead by the time the sky grows dark.

The meteors generally originate in the sky near the constellation Gemini, hence the name of the shower. With the radiant of the shower almost directly overhead, the entire sky will be involved in meteor activity.

So, after the Moon sets on Thursday night, go out and look in any direction. With Gemini high overhead, the best and easiest place to gaze is about forty-five degrees above the horizon, or half way between the horizon and the point directly overhead. The meteors in this region will have long, glowing trails across the sky, and promise to be plentiful.

A meteor shower occurs when a comet passes through the inner regions of the solar system. As it approaches the Sun, the outer surface of the comet heats up, and leaves a trail of icy particles in space. Later, when Earth in its orbit, passes through the debris field of icy particles, they impact on the upper surface of our atmosphere, burning up as they enter. As they do, they streak across our skies in quick and flaming glory, burning up for us on Earth, far below, to witness.

The Geminid meteor shower is caused by a very dense field of icy particles, so the number of impacts are high. And with the Moon out of our sky at the peak of activity, even more meteors will be visible as they impact.

This year, with the ideal circumstances, you should be able to see about 120 meteors an hour, looking in almost any direction, in any region of the dark sky. That’s an average of two every minute!

But remember, meteor impacts are irregular, and an hourly average can be misleading. You may see several meteors in one minute, then wait several more minutes before seeing another. Also, you may be looking north, when there are two in the southern sky, so you must be persistent and diligent.

Bundle up, and plan on spending at least ten minutes outside, a couple of times during the night. Let your eyes adequately adjust to the dark sky conditions. Try to be where there are no lights, or light interference, like streets and headlights.

Also, the debris field for the Geminids is extremely large, so the amazing display will continue for several days throughout the week. But, each night, the Moon will set about fifty minutes later than the previous night, cutting into your extended viewing time.

Magnificent Venus will rise at about three thirty, lending an additional viewing opportunity in the early morning sky. The magnificent jewel is shining brightest right now, and is a beautiful sight to behold in the dark eastern sky, an astronomical bonus gift this holiday season.

The Sun doesn’t begin to significantly lighten the sky until about six thirty, so between midnight and about six, you have significant viewing time to catch one of the most spectacular meteor showers of the year, and view more than just a few amazing Geminid Meteors!

Thanks for the positive feedback about our featured 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.
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• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.

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LAST OF SATURN AND BEST OF VENUS

by William J. Bechaver

Well, we’ve almost lost all of the planets from the evening sky.

Jupiter has now slipped beyond the Sun, and it will be reemerging from the glare in the morning sky, later this month.

It was only a few short months ago that Saturn was high in our late summer sky, and lying as close to Earth as is possible. But now, we’ve orbited to a position on the far side from Jupiter, and Saturn is far and dimming, and sinking lower in the west every night.

At our closest, it was over 841 million miles from Earth, a great distance, even at our closest approach. But this week, as we swing around the Sun, Saturn lies at an astounding distance, over a billion miles from Earth. So even though Jupiter, the next nearest to us, is about as far away as it can be, it is only about half the distance as it is to Saturn right now.

Both of the largest planets are on the far side of the Sun right now. Jupiter is still lost in the solar glare, but will emerge in the east, in the morning twilight before sunrise, later this month. Saturn sets shortly after the Sun, and is barely visible in the west. But this weekend, on the night of Saturday 8 December, the crescent Moon will lie about one degree from Saturn.

After the Sun has set, go outside on Saturday evening, and look to the south west. If you find the Moon, it will make finding Saturn easy. The Sun sets at just a little after 4:40 p.m., and the Moon and Saturn will remain in the sky for about an hour and a half after sunset, setting just after six o’clock.

So, go out Saturday evening just after sunset and find the Moon, and you will be able to find receding and diminishing Saturn as we lose it as we pass around the far side of the Sun.

Venus remains a veritable jewel in the morning sky, climbing higher in the east with each successive week. Though not yet at its highest point in the predawn sky, Venus this week will shine at its brightest.

As you will recall, Venus, after making a spectacular show in our autumn evening sky, passed between the Earth and Sun at the end of October. Since, it has been climbing higher in the morning sky, becoming brighter with each passing day. This week, it will reach its brightest magnitude, as it will now pull further from the Earth on its shorter pathway around the Sun. It will not reach its highest point in the sky until the end of March, so it will be a spectacular sight in the early morning sky throughout the winter.

Though we were closest to it in October, we will not be as close again until June of 2020, as it moves further away from Earth on its path around the Sun, moving further and ever climbing higher in the morning sky.

Thanks for the positive feedback about our featured 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.
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• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.

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Receding Saturn. Photographed with the Nocturn·III•S·P·A·C·E Telescope during our summer viewing sessions.