Fresh from the director of Yerkes Observatory at Williams Bay, Wisconsin…
DECEMBER ASTRONOMICAL EVENTS
…….you can watch without a telescope.
First, the Geminid meteor shower will peak on Monday night and Tuesday morning December 13-14, though there should be a reasonable number of meteors visible for a few nights before and after that. Meteors, often called shooting stars, are seen as streaks of light moving rapidly across the sky. They are actually small particles burning up as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Earth encounters streams of these particles at specific times each year, resulting in predictable meteor showers. The August Perseid meteor shower is probably best known, but the December Geminids are often equally good (though December weather is more often cloudy and temperatures are less pleasant for spending night hours outdoors). To watch these meteors, dress very warmly, find a reasonably dark location, and look up. You should see at least several meteors in a half hour of watching, depending on how clear and dark the sky is. Geminids will appear to streak away from the constellation of Gemini, north of the well-known figure of Orion, but can be seen in any part of the sky, so watch the darkest part of your sky. Gemini will have risen in the eastern sky by 8 pm, though the best meteor viewing will be when it is much higher around and after midnight. The Moon will brighten the western sky somewhat during the first half of the night on Dec. 13-14.
The second event is a total eclipse of the Moon on Monday night and Tuesday morning December 20-21. Lunar eclipses occur when the Moon passes through Earth’s shadow. The partial phase of this eclipse will begin at 12:33 am, though there should be some shadowing visible for perhaps half an hour before that. The Moon will be totally eclipsed from 1:41 to 2:17 am, with another partial phase following totality. The Moon will move from very high in the southeast to moderately high in the west during these hours. During totality the Moon is sometimes so dim as to be almost invisible, but more often is easily visible with a reddish color. Unlike a meteor shower, where one should plan to spend quite awhile outdoors in a reasonably dark location, a lunar eclipse can be viewed by simply going outdoors a few minutes at a time anywhere, and even with a partly cloudy sky. The next total lunar eclipse visible from here will occur in mid-April 2014, an unusually long gap between such eclipses, so try to catch this one if weather permits.