Posted by: Jerry Garrett | December 1, 2011

Night Sky December 2011: 2 Comets, 2 Meteor Showers & A Total Eclipse

At full eclipse, before dawn Dec. 10, the moon turns red. (Telescopes and Astronomy)

The night sky will provide a real bounty for star-gazers this December, starting with the full moon in Taurus on the 10th. Just before dawn that morning, the Earth’s shadow will pass over the Moon – creating what promises to be an eerie red total eclipse. (NASA offers a full technical explanation here.)

Scientists note the last time the Moon experienced something similar during eclipse was March 2007 – hence their predictions of the Moon turning a rather Martian Red.

As noted, most of Earth’s inhabitants will be able to see at least some of it – North America will have a terrific view – with only South America completely missing out.

The eclipse starts in Guam (where, it is said, “America starts its day” every day) and continues across the Pacific to western North America, then down across eastern Europe, Asia and Australia.

Look to the west-northwest in the pre-dawn sky. It is also interesting to note the Moon will rise again as “full” later the evening of December 10.

The Taurean moon, however, will act as a spoiler for another celestial event on December 14 when the colorful Geminid meteor shower will peak (as I noted about last year’s Geminids, it is one of the year’s best). The moon will still be too bright and close to the origin of the meteors near the constellation of Gemini. So the show will still go on, it just won’t be very easy to see.

Meteor-watchers should not despair, however, as a consolation (constellation?) prize is offered in the form of the often-overlooked Ursid meteor shower on December 22-23. Usually only good for about 10 meteors an hour, scientists note it can peak with more than 50 meteors an hour under ideal conditions. And, with a new moon occurring December 24, ideal conditions will exist as the skies should be extraordinarily dark. Look for the meteors to come spraying out from the constellation of Ursa Minor.

The comet Garradd (no relation) makes its presence known during December (and it will continue to be visible for many months to follow) near the constellation of Hercules. Look for it near the horizon just after sunset and before about 6 p.m. local time, or just before dawn. Best times to see it should be during the moonless nights after mid-month. It glows at about 6th or 7th magnitude, which astronomers say is bright enough to be seen by the naked eye, even in the dull glow of the average suburb.

A second comet, Levy, should be briefly visible around December 2 near Pegasus.

Finally, a note for those in the extreme northern latitudes: Keep an eye on the aurora borealis (another celestial favorite of mine). It has been notably active lately, and has produced some very memorable displays.

Please note that winter officially arrives December 22 (Winter Solstice = Shortest Day of the Year) – so bundle up, sky-watchers, the nights will be cold as well as long.

Jerry Garrett

December 1, 2011

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