This year for Christmas day, we get a nearly full Moon and a
terrific alignment with the giant planet Jupiter and the bright star Aldeberan.
They will dominate the night sky from sunset to sunrise, bringing a slowly
changing pattern to bear as they soar high across the Christmas nighttime sky. The
Moon’s gradual eastward motion will be perceptible in this tightly-packed
alignment, rewarding the careful observer with a chance to see the Moon’s
proper motion as it orbits the Earth, moving roughly its own diameter in
distance across the night sky every hour, compared to Jupiter and Aldeberan. If you use binoculars to view the spectacle, you'll get the added bonus of seeing the Hyades star cluster, an open cluster of stars surrounding the star Aldeberan.
I wish you clear skies and nice viewing as we close 2012.
Today I joined Tim and Greg on KFOG In The Mornings to talk about the 2012 Apocalypse and 2012 Hoax, but we moved to more topics including the solstice, asteroids, comets, planets and stars, with calls from listeners too. We had a lively discussion and I am looking forward to more broadcasts with them in 2013. Click here for Part 1 of today's broadcast, and Part 2 of the broadcast.
We are in full swing this week with discussions and rumors about apocalypse on Friday December 21st, 2012. There are numerous claims, including impact by a rogue planet (Niburu), flipping of the Earth's axes, alignment of the planets, alignment of the Earth and Sun and the Galactic Center, and of course most famously, the end of the Long Count Mayan Calendar. All of these are either false or have no connection to science, of course, and scientists are therefore not worried about any of these, since there is absolutely no scientific evidence that any of these things will happen (or in the case of the end of the Mayan Calendar, that there is any reality-based significance of that numerological moment). All we will have on December 21st is the usual winter solstice, a geometric alignment that signifies the endpoint of an annual journey around the Sun, same as any other year.
Debunking the 2012 Hoax
I like to envision myself in a spaceship watching the Earth in its orbit around the Sun, viewing our home planet whisking across the heavens, spinning on its axis and enjoying its perfect location in the Solar System. From up there, you see the planet in its majesty, much as the Apollo astronauts did, a jewel floating through the blackness of space. And then I envision little people way down there on the planet, asking themselves if a rogue planet is in our midst, but is somehow unseen by anyone. And people worrying about a calendar that was invented years ago, the significance of which is completely irrelevant on the cosmic scale of the Solar System and Universe. And I don't understand how rational, thinking beings on Earth can become so self-obsessed and worried about all of these myths. But over the millennia there have always been doomsday rumors, and apparently it's in our nature to believe such stories. It's myth, and if you stand back and take in the big picture like the astronauts did, you cannot help but see just how irrelevant all of the speculation and rumors are.
If you want to read, on a point-by-point basis, just how science refutes each claim of the 2012 doomsday, visit the highly informative 2012 Hoax website. I have met the creator and contributors to this site, as well as David Morrison of NASA who has been speaking out against the rumors for several years. Read the real story and don't worry. I'll see you on December 22nd.
One of the best meteor showers of the year, the Geminids, peaks the night of Thursday December 13th and continues through the early morning hours of Friday December 14th, as seen from the western hemisphere. This annual shower is generally a good show, and this year will be fully uninterrupted by moonlight, as the Moon is new and will leave the skies dark.
To see the Geminids, find a dark location away from bright lights or direct lights, dress very warmly, and give yourself 5-10 minutes to adapt to the darkness. Look up and you'll see the meteors, as they will streak across any part of the sky. The common aspect of these meteors is if you trace the path of the meteor backwards, they will appear to emerge from the constellation Gemini (see image). But don't worry, you don't need to point any one direction or use a telescope. Meteor showers should be relaxing events, with plenty of time to gaze into the heavens and enjoy the glorious night sky.
Finding the major planets in the night sky is easy, since the biggest and nearest planets outshine most stars. But the more distant planets and the asteroids pose a challenge, as you need to use a star chart or other guide to locate these wanderers, and you'll need binoculars or a telescope to see them.
Right now, two of the biggest asteroids are fairly easy to spot, being located high in the night sky and nearby a variety of easy-to-locate landmarks. There are good articles with additional details on the web, including Sky & Telescope and MSNBC Space. The MSNBC article has some very simple diagrams showing the exact location of the asteroids Ceres and Vesta, as they wander through the constellation Taurus. Using binoculars, they should stand out as fairly bright points of light and be distinct against the backdrop of stars in Taurus. I am not an 'asteroid hunter' and don't have lots of experience finding these, but I have used binoculars and telescopes to find the faint outer planets Uranus and Neptune, and anticipate that Ceres and Vesta will be similar. I'll report findings here on the blog comments.
The NASA spacecraft Dawn is on a mission to visit both asteroids, having already orbited Vesta and now is en route to Ceres. (Note: although Ceres was historically classified as an asteroid, it has recently been reclassified to a Dwarf Planet, just like Pluto!)
Every 13 months the planet Jupiter and Earth align with the Sun, a special moment called Opposition. That represents the closest approach between the two planets, and means that Jupiter is at its brightest and 'fullest' for the year. It's unmistakeable when it rises, the brightest light in the east after sunset, blazing in its glory in one of the most spectacular parts of the night sky, near the constellations Orion, Taurus and Auriga and a large number of bright, colorful stars.
It's easy to spot the four brightest Moons (also known as the Galilean Moons) of Jupiter if you use a simple telescope or binoculars. With Jupiter at opposition, now is the time to take a closer look. If you want to actually identify which Jovian moon is which, use this handy app from Sky & Telescope.
In 2005 I began writing a column for the San Francisco Waldorf School newsletter called "The Urban Astronomer." I started this blog in 2007 as a place to archive my articles and to offer additional insights on the night sky - even if you live in a big city. In 2008 I became an occasional guest on the KFOG Morning Show, and subsequently on KALW and KGO. Archived shows are posted on the blog. I now work and write in Munich, Germany.