Lighting up These Long Nights
Can the Geminids outshine December’s full moon?
The moon lights up the night this week, starting as a waxing gibbous, reaching full moon Tuesday and waxing slowly through the middle of the week. Look for the near-full moon beside the Pleiades star cluster Saturday.
You know the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. The Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters and categorized as celestial object M45, could be called the Mini Dipper. The belt stars of the constellation Orion point up toward Taurus the bull and its orange-glowing eye, Aldebaran, with jagged V-shape of the Pleiades marking the bull’s face. The star cluster is a test of your eyesight, as most people can see at best six of the seven sisters. But with binoculars or a small telescope, you’ll see hundreds of stars.
Sunday the moon is beside the bull’s glowing eye, Aldebaran. They are low in the east at nightfall and almost directly overhead at midnight. As daybreak approaches, they are sinking beneath the north-northwest horizon.
December’s full moon Tuesday is commonly called the Long Night Moon, as well as the Cold Moon and the Moon Before Yule. The moon’s nighttime path along the ecliptic during these longest nights of the year is long and high-arching. Six months from now, the sun will be traveling the same path during daylight hours. Conversely, where you see the sun speeding low through the sky, that’s where you’ll find the moon at night six months from now.
North of the Arctic Circle, the moon provides the only natural light, as the sun never rises. And south of the equator, where the daytime sun is at its highest and the moon traveling low against the horizon, the sun never sets at the Antarctic Circle and the moon never rises.
The full moon is joined by Jupiter, a few degrees to the lower left. The not-quite-so-bright star Betelgeuse, marking the shoulder of Orion the hunter, is about the same distance to the moon’s right.
Unfortunately, the near-full moon competes with this year’s Geminids Meteor Shower, which peaks between Friday night and Saturday morning. Year in and year out, this is one of the best showers, delivering up to 80 meteors an hour under ideal conditions. This year, only the brightest meteors will appear against the moon’s glare … until the moon sets. Then, in the hour leading up to sunrise, the Geminids could be dazzling, with some predictions calling for up to 120 “shooting stars” during this narrow window.
Unlike all other meteor showers, which are the result of comets orbiting the sun, the Geminids are the offspring of an asteroid. The shower was first recorded just 150 years ago, and it wasn’t until 1982 when the source was discovered, asteroid 3200 Phaethon. As the earth crosses the path of this interloper, tiny bits of ice, dust and other debris ignites upon hitting the atmosphere, resulting in meteors and even the occasional fireball.
The Geminids rain from December 7 through the 17, so keep your eyes to the sky all week. The meteors appear to emanate from between Castor and Pollux amid the constellation Gemini. While this is the apparent source, you can see meteors from anywhere in the sky; it’s all just a matter where the meteors enter our atmosphere.