Meteor Showers, an Eclipse & the Planets

Two meteor showers grace the night skies in December.  The Geminid meteor shower is the most famous meteor shower of all, and is visible from most locations on Earth every December. However, this year’s Geminid shower, which peaks on the night of December 14, occurs at a time of the month when moonlight will drown out most of the meteors we would otherwise see.  But for those of you in the northern hemisphere, check out December’s other meteor shower — the Ursids.

Shooting Stars
Time lapse photo showing shooting stars from the Geminid meteor shower. Credit: NASA/JPL

A meteor shower occurs when the Earth passes through a cloud of dust particles, typically left from past visits by comets to our part of the solar system.  As the high-speed dust particles vaporize in Earth’s atmosphere, they appear as ‘shooting stars.’  The meteor shower names derive from the constellation (the area of the night sky) from which the meteors appear to originate.  The Geminid meteors appear to fly from the constellation Gemini, and the Ursids appear to fly from the constellation Ursa Minor (where the “Little Dipper” is located).

The best way to view a meteor shower is to lay down and look up: No telescopes or binoculars needed!  You might use a fully reclining lawn chair or cot.  Be prepared to stay up late to see the best show.  The Ursids this year will likely be best during the first few hours following midnight on the night of December 22/23.  Normally, you can see about 10 shooting stars per hour during the Ursids, although sometimes you can see as many as 50 shooting stars per hour.

A total eclipse of the Moon will be visible (weather permitting) on December 10 to those of you in Australia, New Zealand, and east Asia.  If you live in the western U.S. you can see the Moon during the ‘partial phase’ of the eclipse during the predawn hours of December 10.  The eclipse will not be visible at all from South America, and will be only marginally visible from other populated locales.  Click here for an excellent, full guide to the eclipse posted by an Australian amateur astronomer.

Lunar eclipse
The Moon during a lunar eclipse. The orange color results from sunlight being refracted (bent) by the Earth's atmosphere. Credit: NASA

The Planets in December 2011

Venus is the bright point of light you’ll see in the western sky during the early evening hours this December: It will be the brightest astronomical object you’ll see this month, other than  the moon and the sun!  Venus will appear low on the western horizon in early December and set shortly thereafter, but will appear higher and higher in the western sky as the month progresses.  Venus begins the month in the constellation Sagittarius and moves into Capricorn December 20.

Jupiter is the brightest point of light you see in the eastern sky during the early evening hours. Look for our solar system’s giant planet near the Moon on the evening of December 6 (December 7 for those of you in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and other parts of the eastern hemisphere).  You should be able to see Jupiter and up to four of its large moons through any telescope — even through a pair of binoculars. These four large moons move so quickly that if you observe Jupiter’s moons every few hours you’ll see that they change their position in relation to the planet. For example, if you observe Jupiter shortly after sunset you might see one or two of its large moons, but if you observe Jupiter a few hours later you might see all four of its large moons — or vice versa! Currently, Jupiter straddles the border between the constellations Aries and Pisces in December.

Jupiter and the Moon
Jupiter and the Moon the evening of Dec. 6 (Dec. 7 in the eastern hemisphere). Jupiter straddles the border between the constellations Aries and Pisces in December

Mars rises over the eastern horizon shortly after midnight this month.  If you are a night owl, look for the Red Planet near the Moon over the night of December 16-17 (December 17-18 for those of you in the eastern hemisphere of Earth).   The red planet is in the Name A Star Live constellation Leo this month.

On the other hand, if you are an early bird you’ll see the beautiful, ringed planet Saturn in the eastern sky during the predawn hours in December.  Saturn is in the constellation Virgo.

Mercury peaks over the eastern horizon shortly before sunrise in the last half of December.  Your best shot at seeing Mercury will be around December 19 (weather permitting).

When to go stargazing this month

Moonlight ‘drowns out’ the faint light of many stars and other celestial objects, so the best time to view the stars is when the Moon is not visible. If you’re going to stargaze between sunset and midnight, then the best time to do that in December would be during most of the latter half of the month.

Finding your star in the night sky

Stars are located within constellations, which are just areas of the night sky. Scorpius, Aries and Taurus are examples of constellations. Your Name A Star Live Star Certificate displays the name of your constellation.

You can use our online World Constellation Guide to determine if you can see your constellation during the evening hours (between sunset and midnight). Of course, you’ll need a telescope to see your star. (That’s why we include the SLOOH online telescope experience in our Deluxe, Framed and Ultimate Gift Sets!) But you can see your constellation without the use of a telescope.

You can also find your constellation by using our Virtual Planetarium™ astronomy software. A planisphere is another useful device.

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