Gateway to the Stars December 2015: Solstice, Meteors, and more

Nick Jarvis

December is upon us! It’s dark, the Sun set before you even left work, your breath steams out of your nose while the frosty ground crunches under your feet, and the overnight low temperature will be about 20 °F. So… now let’s sit outdoors under the sky in the middle of the night!

What’s that you say? You have a standing appointment with a blanket, a space heater, and a cup of hot chocolate?

Well, I’d hate to interfere with a ”hot” date, but in this month’s Gateway to the Stars show, I’m going to do my best to convince you that the December night sky has some lovely sights worth bundling up for.

In December, we’ll be treated to the Geminid meteor shower as the Earth flies through a string of light debris left behind from the comet 3200 Phaethon. Geminids should be visible between December 4th through the 17th, with the peak of the shower coming around the 14th. During the peak, it may be possible to see more than 100 meteors per hour, making the Geminids one of the best meteor showers of the year! In our Gateway to the Stars show, we’ll use our high-resolution digital night sky to show you what to expect from the Geminids, why it happens yearly, and some tips to get the best possible view.

"Geminids" by Asim Patel

“Geminids” by Asim Patel

While the “shooting stars” will be spectacular, the regular stars will be pretty dazzling as well. Have you ever noticed the stars seem brighter in the winter? I’ve heard many people wonder whether it’s something about the cold air, but really it’s just that there are more bright stars on this side of the Sun. In particular, there are lots of great bright and colorful stars in the region called the Winter Circle?, extending around the famously bright constellation of Orion. And for observers with binoculars or small telescopes, this is a great time of year to look for some deeper targets as well. The Andromeda and Triangulum galaxies of our local group are high overhead, with minimal interference from Earth’s atmosphere, and we’ll tour through several nice nebulae and star clusters are in good viewing position as well.

And of course, the whole phenomenon of the seasons is itself an astronomical process. The relationship between the Earth and Sun cause our seasons, and for many thousands of years we and our ancestors have carefully tracked the approach of the yearly winter solstice. For us, that will occur late on the night of December 21st, which will be the longest night of the year. And just like our ancestors we know that this time of year - when the days are short and the nights are long and cold – is the time we need to throw our biggest parties and celebrations. Are there any big festivals, celebrations, or holidays around this time of year? Hmm…

Come join us in this month’s Gateway to the Stars to get a tour of the best sights, tips for observing the stars, and a great place to ask questions about all things astronomical.

But seriously, bundle up!

Gateway to the Stars? is hosted by Nick Jarvis on Saturday, December 5th at 6:45pm in the Hansen Dome Theater. Tickets are $2, or free for planetarium members. Buy tickets here, or at the Clark Planetarium ticket desk.

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