The fall of 2021 has shown us many interesting night sky attractions.
The almost total lunar eclipse on Nov. 19 happened in a pretty clear sky but at an inconvenient hour. The trio of bright planets continues to dominate our evening sky. A year ago we were watching planets Jupiter and Saturn draw historically close to one another in our December evening sky.
Those two planets along with Venus are visible once again in our December skies. They form an almost straight line and appear almost equidistant apart in our southwestern evening skies now.
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On Dec. 6, the waxing crescent moon will appear dramatically close below Venus. The next night, Dec. 7, the moon hangs below the ringed planet Saturn and the night of Dec. 8 Jupiter glows directly above the moon.
All of these planets are great targets for small telescopes but telescope owners should pay special attention to Venus in the coming weeks.
Venus is getting lower in our evening sky as it moves toward a point between us and the sun. This second planet from the sun comes closer to us than any other planet and because the orbit of Venus lies entirely within Earth’s orbit, we see Venus undergo phases just like the moon.
A small telescope aimed at Venus will show us those phases with the planet appearing as a small fat crescent right now. In the coming weeks the crescent phase of Venus will shrink but all the while the planet will appear to grow in size as Venus passes nearer and nearer to us.
By Christmas, Venus, low in the southwestern sky after sunset, will appear as a very slim crescent showing only a 6% sunlit face and the phase will even be seen in binoculars. The slim phase will be obvious in a small telescope.
The planets aren’t the only attractions in the last month of 2021.
The annual Geminid meteor shower, one of the year’s best, peaks on the night of Dec. 13. Late that evening we may see an average of better than one meteor a minute if we observe from a place far from city lights where we can see the entire sky.
Meteors, sometimes called “shooting stars” are bits of rock and dust left in the wakes of comets orbiting the sun. Several times each year earth’s orbit intersects the stream of meteor debris and the particles hit our atmosphere and start to glow about 60 miles above the surface of Earth. Most are quick and not all that bright but once in a while a larger chunk of material makes the plunge and glows brilliantly, sometimes lighting up the landscape like a flash of lightning. The Geminid meteors are unusual in that they are associated not with a comet but with the asteroid Phaethon.
The Geminid meteors are so named because they all appear to radiate from the constellation Gemini which will be rising in the east on the evening of Dec. 13. But Geminid meteors may appear anywhere in the sky at any time around the shower peak.
We never want a bright moon in the sky when we’re trying to watch a meteor shower because moonlight can wash out the fainter meteors and make them hard to see. Unfortunately, we will have a 77% sunlit moon in the evening sky on the peak night of Dec. 13. The moon will set around 2 a.m. leaving a dark moonless sky between then and dawn. That may be the time when the most Geminid meteors may be seen. At that time the constellation Gemini will be almost overhead as the meteors appear to radiate from that part of the sky.
The Geminids in December and the Perseid meteor shower in August offer the best chance during the year of seeing multiple meteors in a short span of time, but only if we observe from a dark sky site where we have a view of almost all of the night sky. Clouds and haze often plague the viewing of the August Perseids locally, but December can sometimes serve up a crystal clear, if very chilly, night that can be great for meteor observing.
By the way, if you missed that early morning partial eclipse of the moon back on Nov. 19 you won’t have to wait long for a chance to see an even better lunar eclipse at a more decent hour. A total eclipse of the moon will happen on the night of May 15, 2022. It will start around 10:30 p.m. and be totally shadowed by 11:30 p.m. It will be visible from start to finish across the eastern half of the United States.
If you have a question about astronomy, send it to Backyard Universe P.O. Box 297, Stedman, NC 28391 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: See a meteor shower in Fayetteville NC in December