November 25, 2012

What's Up in December: Several highlights worth bundling up for

By Bernie Reim

December marks the beginning of the winter solstice for us in the northern hemisphere. This year that will happen at 6:12 a.m. Dec. 21. That also marks the end of the Mayan calendar, which will just start another cycle. It will flip over to a new baktun that day as it does every 144,000 days, or about 400 years. No astronomical catastrophe will occur like an asteroid or comet hitting the Earth.

We will be more aligned with the center of our Milky Way galaxy at that time, but that happens every winter solstice. Some astrologers and psychics say that we will be more aligned with our galaxy than we were 26,000 years ago, which happens to equal one cycle of precession. That could line us up with extra energy from the center of our galaxy if that is true. We are also located 26,000 light years from the center of our galaxy.

There are several interesting highlights in December well worth braving the cold. Jupiter is at opposition on Dec. 2, the Geminid meteor shower peaks on Dec. 13, and our two largest asteroids, Ceres and Vesta, shine at their brightest in Taurus.

Jupiter reaches opposition on Dec. 2. This will be one of the closest oppositions for the entire 12-year orbit of Jupiter. The King of the planets will be directly opposite the sun from the earth that day, which means it will rise at sunset, reach its highest point at midnight, and not set until sunrise.

Try looking at Jupiter through a telescope in December to peer deeper into its mysteries and to better appreciate one of the family members of our solar system. Just before midnight on the night of the opposition, Callisto and Io will be to the left of the planet, and Europa and Ganymede will be to the right, balancing out the four Galilean moons. Each moon is unique and Europa, with a huge liquid ocean just below its icy surface, has the best chance for life as we know it anywhere in our solar system other than Mars.

The full moon on Christmas Day will pass just below Jupiter and just above the Hyades star cluster with the orange giant star Aldebaran, which marks the face and eye of Taurus the Bull.

We should enjoy an excellent Geminid meteor shower. It will peak on Thursday evening the 13th into Friday morning the 14th. There will be no moon to interfere. You could actually see about 100 meteors per hour this year. The Geminids are caused by the dust and debris in the trail of an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon, which is probably the old nucleus of a comet. These particles leave brighter streaks because they are a little denser than the comet dust that creates the other meteor showers. Look into the eastern sky in the constellation of Gemini which is just to the left of Orion and part of the winter hexagon. It will already be above the horizon at sunset, so start viewing the meteors as soon as it gets dark that evening. You can add to the scientific knowledge of meteors by doing a real meteor count to report. Check out and look under advanced meteor observing for more information. Astronomy is one of the few fields where amateurs can always add good information by careful observing that will help the professionals. It is also more exciting to participate at a deeper level to help you understand what you are really seeing when you watch an event like a meteor shower or an eclipse or a transit of Venus.

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