December Night Sky-- click to see larger
© Will Trion
This year's Geminids should be visible to the naked eye.
© Brocken Inaglory
The December night sky is busy. We’ll see the Geminid meteor shower as well as the less well known Ursids closer to Christmas
And later in the month we have the the Winter solstice— the first day of winter.
The Geminid’s Meteors Should Be Easy to See
The nights of the 13th and 14th will be the peak of one of the best meteor showers of the year. Known as the Geminid meteor shower, it gets its name because the meteors appear to be zipping towards an observor from the constellation Gemini.
In the United States, head out after dark (best viewing is usually after 9 PM) and look a little north of due east. As long as you avoid other lights, you should be able to observe this year’s shower with the naked eye. Note that this year the moon will be rising after midnight so, unlike many showers that often are best seen in the VERY early morning, your best bet is to watch BEFORE midnight on the evenings of December 13 and 14—until the light of the moon as it rises makes the meteors harder to see..
Once the moonlight dies down, you may be able to see as many as 100 a meteors per hour on the nights of December 13th and 14th. In fact, the International Meteor Organization (IMO.net) predicts the hourly rate might be 120 meteors an hour at the peak of the shower. Click here for an easy to use sky map and more details.
The Ursids are visible December 17th-23rd, peaking the night of the 21-22. This shower is often neglected because it peaks just before Christmas and the rates are lower than the Geminds, which peaks the week before the Ursids. Observers will normally see 5-10 Ursids per hour during the late morning hours on the date of maximum activity although there have been occasional outbursts when rates have exceeded 25 per hour.
And Don’t Forget The Start Of Winter
Sunday, December 21st is the Winter Solstice, which marks the beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere (although it started a few weeks back for many folks!). The solstice is actually a very specific event and time. This year it’s at 11:03 PM Universal Time (what most of us used to call Greenwich Mean Time). That’s five hours ahead of US Eastern Standard and eight hours ahead of US Pacific Standard Time. Here’s a handy link to calculate the exact time for your location
At precisely that time, the Earth’s axial tilt is at its most distant from the sun and North America gets the least amount of sunlight it experiences all year. So even though we’re still facing several months of cold weather across the US, we’ll soon see days start to get longer, and eventually warmer, from this point forward.
So are you ready for winter? Is your local wildlife?