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I will be traveling over the weekend and away from my computer, so I’m giving an early post about three upcoming celestial observations

moon.

Saturday, December 22, 2018 is our final full moon of the year and it occurs less than a day after the Winter solstice. That is close enough that to most people it will look like a Full Moon on the solstice.

For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the solstice will be the longest winter night, but a big bright Moon will be a celestial nightlight for many of us. This is the third closest and largest of this year’s 13 full moons.

I would guess to the ancients who were attentive to celestial occurrences, they might have seen deeper meanings in these three simultaneous events. A December solstice and Full Moon happening less than a day apart last happened in 2010. The next time will be 2029. 

I missed any good view of the Geminid meteor showers last week due to cloud and rain. This week the annual Ursid meteor shower occurs and they typically peak around the December solstice. They will still be strong on the 22nd and continue until about the 28th.

The Ursids are not as impressive as the Geminids, although if you have never seen a meteor shower of “falling stars” or “fireballs” (get those kids outside!) seeing even a few is pretty impressive. I would recommend that you go out and look to the Big and Little Dippers. Ursa Major and Ursa Minor give their names to the meteor shower and are easy to find late at night high in the north-northeast. The big glare of the first December solstice full moon since 2010 will unfortunately being a celestial nightlight that will wash out some of the darkness.

You never see the Moon rotate as in the video above where it spins in full rotation. This footage is from NASA who explains that we never see this because our Moon is tidally locked in its orbit to the Earth, and so always shows us only one side.

It takes some digital technology to combine many HD images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) to make this virtual Moon rotation video. In this time-lapse video, we start with the standard Earth view of the Moon, then an entire lunar month is condensed into 24 seconds.

Early full moons in December were called the Moon Before Yule by the European colonists who also knew it as the Oak Moon (Medieval English), Frost Moon, Freezing Moon, and Snow Moon.

Native Americans had many names for this Full Moon including Long Night Moon, Cold Moon, Small Spirits Moon, When the Wolves Run Together (Cheyenne) Moon of Respect (Hopi) and Moon of Popping Trees.

 

meteors

Geminids in the northern hemisphere by Asim Patel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via commons.wikimedia.org

The Geminid meteor shower is a very reliable annual meteor shower that will visit us again this week.

The next several nights are probably the best nights for watching with the peak morning is likely to be December 14, 2018, but the morning of December 13 might offer a good display, too, and meteor watchers have been catching Geminids for some nights now.

You can watch in the late evening, but the best viewing hours are typically around 2 a.m., no matter where you are on Earth. And this year there will only be a waxing crescent moon, so moonlight won’t wash out the darkness.

The meteors appear to come from (radiate from) the constellation Gemini, which rises around sunset and moves overhead into morning. The best views are usually between midnight and 4am.

The Geminids are slow-moving dust particles when they hit the Earth’s atmosphere. “Slow” is relative here – they are only moving at 22 miles per second. The friction with air molecules will burn them up and make a nice glow for us to watch.

These showers are caused by the object 3200 Phaethon, which is an asteroid. That is unusual and this is one of the only major meteor showers not originating from a comet. This asteroid has an orbit that brings it closer to the Sun than any other named asteroid. And that is how the asteroid got its name.

Phaeton

Gustave Moreau: Fall of Phaéton (Chute de Phaéton) watercolor study, via Wikimedia

Phaethon is a name from mythology.  Phaethon was the Ancient Greek name for the planet Jupiter, a planet whose motions and cycles were observed by the ancients and often used in poetry and myth.

In mythology, Phaethon’s father was the sun god Helios who granted his son’s wish to drive the sun chariot for a day.  Phaethon was unable to control the horses and to prevent the chariot from hitting and destroying Earth, Zeus knocked it out of the sky with a thunderbolt. Phaethon fell to earth and was killed.

Of course, meteors are not falling stars, and they are not coming from the chariot of the Sun, but it does make for a good story.

 

The Taurid meteor shower is upon us and there are some who say that there is evidence to suggest Earth is at greater risk than we thought of being hit by an asteroid associated with these meteors. Don’t worry. A new swarm of meteoroids – icy space debris left behind by a comet – are related to the Taurid meteor stream.

Three giant asteroids will pass Earth tomorrow, but NASA has not warned or alerted anyone. Asteroid 2018 VX1 was discovered November 4. It will pass about 381,000 kilometres away from Earth, which is 3,000 kilometres closer than our Moon’s average distance from us. And there are two more asteroids in the neighborhood Saturday.

It may sound dangerously close but as some news reports have said “all the planets in our solar system, including Pluto, can fit between Earth and the moon. So there is a lot of room out there.”

Don’t panic. It’s not Vogons wanting to demolish Earth in order to build a bypass for an intergalactic highway. But, just in case, have a beer, some peanuts, and carry a towel.

 

Artist’s depiction of a near-Earth object. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)A

This is my birthday weekend and if I am lucky I will be able to look up at the sky in the dark hours before dawn and get a gift of some “shooting stars” that are part of the annual Orionid meteor shower.

The shower will peak overnight on October 21-22. The Orionid meteors do their thing every year between about October 2 and November 7. Hopefully, the sky will be cloudless and the almost full Moon won’t wipe out my view.

These meteors come from Earth passing through the dust cloud left behind by Halley’s Comet, and because we hit that dust head-on, these meteors are very fast. So named because they appear to come from the constellation Orion, they can be seen everywhere on Earth. Look east between midnight and dawn and find Orion who is easy to spot with the three aligned stars of his belt.

 

Orion

The peak of the Perseid meteor shower this year was probably this morning and the morning of August 13 – so you have another chance to see these meteors.

The moon is missing from the night sky and that darkness may bring peaks of 50 or more meteors per hour. Find the darkest sky near you late at night as you can. Even being in the shadow of a tree or building to block lights will help you spot a “shooting star.”

Halley’s Comet only comes into the inner solar system about every 76 years. The last pass at its perihelion was in 1986 and I got a glimpse of it. The next one should be in 2016 and I won’t be around for that visit.

But Earth intersects Comet Halley’s orbit twice each year. Around now, we can see bits of this comet as the annual Eta Aquariid meteor shower. Then, in October, Earth’s orbit again intersects the orbital path of Comet Halley and the broken pieces from Halley’s Comet burn up in Earth’s atmosphere as the annual Orionid meteor shower.

The comet itself is a mountain of ice, dust and gas, but each pass near the sun breaks it up more and it sheds that trail of debris. Astronomers say it lost about 1/1,000th of its mass during its last flyby in 1986.

It is truly awesome (we tend to forget what awe really means) that Comet Halley has circled the sun innumerable times over countless millennia. I am doing my 65th circle this year and I surely have lost a lot over those orbits (though not mass).

A meteor shower can be from fragments (meteoroids) the size of grains of sand or gravel smashing into Earth’s upper atmosphere. This creates those vaporized fiery streaks (meteors) across our sky. I suppose we have our birthday candles

Right now, Comet Halley is outside the orbit of Neptune at almost its most distant point from us (aphelion).

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