What’s that we hear? Sleigh bells? It’s the month that hosts the Christmas holidays, it’s December. We’re getting into the heart of winter and the night sky is likely to be crisp and clear and we get into the colder nights. When you’re out stargazing this month, Jack Frost may start nipping at your feet, so make sure you wrap up warm with plenty of layers, scarves, woolly hats, gloves, and the lot!
As we come to the end of the year we want you to have the best stargazing experience possible. To start the month, there will be a conjunction of the Moon and the planet Venus in early morning sky of 7th December between. As you will know, Venus is also known as the “Morning Star,” and the “Evening Star.” The ancient Greek and Egyptians once thought that Venus was two separate objects in the sky, the morning and evening star. The Greeks called the morning star “Phosphoros,” which means “bringer of light.” They called the evening star “Hesperos,” meaning “the star of the evening.” A few hundred years later however, the Greeks realised that Venus was actually a single object. If you would like to see the conjunction of the Moon and Venus make sure you are looking east, just before sunrise on 7th December.
The New Moon will be in the sky on the 11th of December, so this will be the perfect time to try and see more of the wonderful celestial objects in the night sky. Winter time plays host to some fantastic wonders, so here are a few of our recommendations.
The constellation of Orion the Hunter will be rising in the sky this month and he will remain visible in the night sky right through until March. Orion is a brilliant constellation to view in the night sky as it contains many bright stars. The brightest stars in this constellation are Rigel (Beta Orionis), a blue white star, and Betelgeuse (Alpha Orionis), a red giant star. Orion takes its name from the Ancient Greek super strong hunter, also called Orion. There are several myths surrounding Orion, most of them linking him to various other constellations in the night sky. In regards to the birth of Orion, it is guessed that he is most likely the son of Poseidon and Euryale, the daughter of King Minos of Crete. He was a bit of a big, loud brute and in one story, Orion walks on the waves (a power handed down from his father) towards the island of Chios, where he consumes a little bit too much alcohol and gets into trouble Oenopion, the ruler there. Orion attacks his daughter and the ruler blinds him as punishment. In order to get his sight back Orion has to travel into the East to meet Helios, the Sun, who restores his sight, a bit ironic now considering we know what really can happen when you look directly at the sun. Orion also at one point, goes hunting with the Goddess of the Hunt, Artemis and her mother Leto. During their hunt, Orion threatens to kill every living beast on Earth. What happens next has two variations. One variation is that Mother Earth doesn’t take kindly to this threat, and sends a giant scorpion (represented by the constellation Scorpius) to kill Orion, and in the other version, Apollo (brother to Artemis) sends the scorpion. Either way, the scorpion succeeds in killing Orion and Zeus puts his image up into the night sky. If you would like to see Orion this month, make sure you look in a south-easterly direction around 11pm on a clear night.
The month of December also boasts what is considered one of the best meteor showers to grace the heavens. The Geminids Meteor shower runs annually between 7th and 17th December, with is peak occurring late night on the 13th and early morning on the 14th. If you haven’t been able to catch a meteor shower at any point during this year, then this is the meteor shower that will solve all of your problems. This shower can produce up to 120 meteors per hour, so make sure you get outside to catch a glimpse. The meteors are produced by debris leftover by asteroid 3200 Phaethon. The meteors will radiate from the constellation Gemini, but can appear anywhere in the sky.
On 22nd December it will be official, we will be in our winter season. This day will see the Earth’s South Pole tilted towards the Sun, and the Sun will be at its southernmost position in the sky. This signals the first official day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, lucky us!
If you do happen to miss the Geminids Meteor Shower, there will be another minor shower later in the month. The Ursids Meteor shower produces about 5-10 meteors per hour. It is produced by dust grains left behind by Comet Tuttle, which was first discovered in 1790. The shower runs yearly from December 17-25. This year is peaks on the night of the 21st the early morning of the 22nd. There will be a waxing gibbous moon in the sky during this shower and it will be bright enough to hide most of the fainter meteors. Naturally the best viewing for this shower will be just after midnight in a dark location where there is no light pollution. The meteors will radiate from the constellation Ursa Minor, but can appear anywhere in the sky.
Now for the most important information about the December night sky, how are we going to see Santa? Well you’re in luck because the Moon will be almost full in the sky on the 24th December, Christmas Eve. It will reach its full stage on 25th December. I know what you’re thinking, how does the moon being almost full help me to see Santa? The answer is simple; there will be more moonlight in the sky, which will increase your chances of seeing that infamous sleigh. Make sure not to stay up too late past your bedtime, because you know Santa won’t come to you if he knows you’re awake, however that doesn’t mean to say you can’t stay up for a little while and watch out for him while he is delivering to other houses. Another top tip to seeing the man in the red suit is to make sure you’re looking to the east, where the sun would normally rise in the morning. Everyone knows Santa always comes in from the east, so this will also increase your chances.
This wraps up the year, and what a year it has been for stargazing. At Armagh Planetarium we are very hopeful for some excellent viewings in the New Year and if you’re stuck for a New Year’s resolution, how about making 2016 your year of stargazing?
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!
(Article by Heather Taylor, Education Support Officer)