EDITOR’S NOTE: Ever wish for advance alert of an upcoming meteor shower/eclipse/etc. – and/or wonder “What’s that bright ‘star’ up there?” This should help. It’s our periodic feature by West Seattle’s own Solar System Ambassador Alice Enevoldsen, famed for her solstice/equinox sunset watches, among other things.
By Alice Enevoldsen
Special to West Seattle Blog
Watch for the Geminid meteor shower, Mars, Jupiter, Orion, and Saturn this month. The winter solstice happens this month, though our closest approach to the Sun and our latest sunrise both happen in early January.
I’ve also included things you can look for if you’re out watching the Christmas Ships next weekend or any other clear evening we happen to get, such as after the solstice Sunset Watch on Sunday, December 21st.
Hey, what’s that?
Was it a shooting star or a fireball? Then it was probably one of the Geminids, a meteor from the Geminid meteor shower. These meteors seem to radiate from Gemini, a little North of Orion (three stars in a row, closely spaced).
Just after sunset, you’ll be seeing the bright stars Altair and Vega in the West.
Later than that, Orion rises in the East, bringing along with it all the bright stars of the Winter Circle: Capella, Aldebaran, Sirius, Procyon, Castor, Pollux and Betelgeuse. I wouldn’t say Betelgeuse is always considered part of the winter circle, but it’s in the same region.
After Orion rises, Jupiter will be rising in the east around 10pm or so—quite eye-catching. If you’re up before the Sun, as many of us are this time of year, Jupiter will be notable high in the Southwest.
Rising just before sunrise, you’ll also see Saturn in the Southeast.
Out Late? Watching the Christmas Ships?
I’m always willing to take advantage of pre-planned outdoor gatherings to point out spectacular things in the night sky. The night the Christmas Ships are stopping by West Seattle this year, December 13th, which also happens to be the peak of the Geminid Meteor Shower. As we noticed in 2009, sometimes the ships’ light displays are enhanced by shooting stars.
(Geminid meteor as seen from Lowman Beach in 2009, by Jason Gift Enevoldsen ©2009, reproduced with permission)
Other things you’ll notice in the sky, if it is clear, after the Christmas Ships on December 13th from Lowman Beach, are Vega and Altair, and if you know where to look, Mars. Vega will be mid-way up the sky, almost due West. Altair will be the same height, but a little further South. Mars is lower, and even further South, just about South-southwest. It will be notable by its salmon color. (Seasoned astronomers call this color “bright red” but if you color-matched it at the hardware store, you’d end up somewhere in the orangey-pink-toned whites.
If you’re watching later, when the ships perform at Alki Beach, you’ll again see Vega midway up the sky, straight in front of you or off to the left a little. The Big Dipper will be just above the horizon in the North, a bit off to your right.
This will all still be true other nights this month from those same locations, except the meteor shower, if you aren’t going out to see the ships or if it isn’t clear that night.
Other Meteor Showers
The Geminids Meteor Shower peaks on December 13th and these should be pretty cool, as they’re often one of the best of the year—though we miss them due to clouds most of the time. The Ursids Meteor Shower peaks on December 22nd, and the Quadrantids Meteor Shower peaks on January 3rd. As usual, there’s a good handful of even more minor meteor showers happening as well.
Saturday, December 13th, Christmas Ships: Lowman Beach (4:20 pm) and Alki Beach (5:10 pm)
Sunday, December 21st, 3:45-4:45 pm — Winter Solstice Sunset Watch: sunset ~4:20 pm, solstice moment 3:03 pm (Solstice Park)
Monday, December 22nd — Ursids Meteor Shower Peak
Saturday, January 3rd — Quadrantids Meteor Shower Peak
Saturday/Sunday, January 3rd/4th, 7:58 am — Latest sunrise of the year
Sunday, January 4th — Earth at Perihelion, our annual closest approach to the Sun
Monday, January 5th — 10th anniversary of the discovery of what is now known as dwarf planet Eris by Mike Brown and his team. I usually don’t mention anniversaries here, but this one is worth noting, because you probably remember that the discovery of Eris was the spark that set off the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) debates about the definition of “planet” and Pluto’s status. At the time of discovery it was temporarily designated “2003 UB313.” For about a year we all unofficially called the dwarf planet “Xena” as we waited for the IAU’s decision on whether it was a planet or not.
Did I miss something? Please add it in the comments!