24 November 2016

Geminid Meteor Shower 2016

Geminid Radiant in Gemini
Every year there are many meteor showers that arrive on schedule, resulting from the fact that Earth travels through well-established regions of dust and particles on its annual trek around the Sun. The Geminids are one of the year's best, reliably peaking as the Earth passes through the remants of asteroid 3200 Phaethon on December 13th and 14th each year.

One of the most important factors in viewing a meteor shower is to find a dark sky and this year, unforunately, this will be very difficult due to the fact that the full Moon coincides with the peak of the Geminids. So although many meteors will streak into the upper atmosphere and burn up, most won't be visible because their light will be drowned out by the glowing moonlight in our atmosphere.

That being said, if the weather is clear and you have warm clothing, it will be a fine night to just sit out in your garden or a park or on a mountainside and look anyhow. The Geminids reach their peak much earlier than most meteor showers, so a pleasant hour of viewing in the evening should reveal a few of the brighter meteors. Just temper your expectations and you will have a nice night. You won't see hundreds of meteors per hour, but then again, there will be plenty of stars and if you have binoculars, you can turn it into an evening of reacquaining yourself with the brighter stars and nebulae of the winter sky as Orion climbs high into the eastern sky after sunset and Pegasus dominates the sky overhead.

Here are excellent online resources for further reading on meteor showers:

Sky & Telescope



Image courtesy of Sky & Telescope.

11 November 2016

Supermoon on November 13 and 14

How much bigger is a Supermoon? 
The natural cycles of the cosmos brings us many interesting sights in the night sky and our closest celestial neighbor, the Moon, is always one of the best and brightest as it aligns with the Sun for an eclipse, or a planet for a spectacular conjunction. Sunday and Monday November 13 and 14, the Moon reaches its closest point on its orbit around the Earth at nearly the exact same time as it reaches its full phase, creating a Supermoon. This special situation happens every year or so, but this time the Moon will be a slight bit closer to the Earth, making this the closest Supermoon since 1948. The next Supermoon of this stature will arrive in 2034. So if you have clear skies Sunday or Monday, make a special effort to get out and see this ever-so-large object in the sky, 14% larger than it is when the Moon is at its farthest from the Earth.

The exact moment of the full Moon is Monday morning at 5:52 am pacific time, and the closest approach to the Earth (perigee) at 3:22 am, a bit earlier that night. So if you want to see the biggest and best view that will be early Monday morning November 14th. However, moonrise on both the evening of the 13th and 14th should be incredible so don't feel obligated to see it at the exact moment if you prefer sleeping in a warm bed! Or if you happen to live in Europe you can simply watch the moonrise on the evening of Monday 14th and you'll be all set. The exact time of moonrise can be found here, depending upon your location.

Here are some good online resources to learn more: 

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

10 November 2016

Three Planets in the Sunset Sky

Three planets are visible in the west just after sunset. Saturn is on a gradual fade into twilight and will disappear from view later this month, following the path of the zodiac constellation Sagittarius and the center of the Milky Way as the Earth's steady motion around the Sun carries us from the summer and fall constellations into the winter skies.

Mars, Venus, Saturn
Venus is the brightest object in the west for the coming months, maintaining its position as a bright beacon above the horizon for an hour or two after sunset. Both Venus and Mars are not 'pulled' into the western horizon in the same way as Saturn because they are much closer to the Earth and more nimble, moving steadily east in their orbits and keeping pace with the Earth's own motion. For that reason they remain in the evening sky after sunset with Venus eventually dropping out of sight late this winter and Mars holding its western location until nearly summer.

To see any of this you will need a clear and unobstructed western horizon. A pair of binoculars will enhance the view. And clear skies!