Geminid meteor shower

Geminid meteor shower, 2012 © Mike Lewinski

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Know what's up. The Morrison Planetarium's Skywatcher's Guide is a quarterly compendium of astronomical happenings.

October 2

Moon at last quarter, rising shortly after midnight and located due south at dawn on the morning of the 3rd. At dawn, we're looking at it with north at the top and the Moon lit from the left, illuminating the Ocean of Storms.

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October 7

Tonight and tomorrow night are when the annual Draconid meteor shower peaks. Find out more about this and the other meteor showers this season in Notes.

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October 8

New Moon. Sighting of the first thin crescent after new marks the start of Safar, the second month of the Moon-based Islamic calendar. This sighting is possible—though challenging—just after sunset on the 10th.

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October 16

Starting from last week's new phase, the Moon has completed the first quarter of its orbit around Earth. It rises early in the afternoon and is toward the south at sunset. We see exactly half of its Earth-facing side, illuminated from the right, revealing dark patches known as the Sea of Crises, the Sea of Serenity, the Sea of Tranquility, the Sea of Fertility, and the Sea of Nectar.

Also, this is the first day of winter for the Northern Hemisphere...on Mars. The Red Planet has an axis of rotation that's tilted 25 degrees from the vertical (very similar to Earth's 23.5-degree tilt). On this day, the martian north pole is tipped farthest away from the Sun, resulting in colder weather that stimulates the growth of the northern polar ice cap.

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October 21

Peak of the annual Orionid meteor shower, which can produce about 35 meteors per hour under ideal conditions, although this year's circumstances aren't quite so favorable. More about the Orionids in this season's Notes.

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October 23

Uranus at opposition. The seventh planet is not usually included in our planet round-up because a telescope is needed to see it. However, opposition is when a planet is brightest, as seen from Earth. If you want to give it a try, see the Notes for this season.

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October 24

The full Moon of October has gone by various traditional names given to it by indigenous Americans, including the Blackberry Moon (Choctaw), variations of Falling Leaves Moon (Nez Perce, Ojibway, San Juan), and the Time of Poverty (Mohawk). As the second full Moon of Autumn (following September's Harvest Moon), this is also known as the Hunter's Moon.

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October 31

Last quarter Moon rises late tonight, around 1:00 a.m. on the morning of November 1, located very close to the Beehive cluster in Cancer the Crab. This means that Halloween night is moonless while the trick-or-treaters are out and about.

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November 4

Return to Standard Time at 2:00 a.m., when Daylight Time ends and most clocks in the U.S. return to Standard Time (except in Hawaii, most of Arizona, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands). Why don't U.S. territories observe Daylight Time? Find out in Notes.

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November 7

New Moon sighting of the first visible crescent after this new Moon marks the start of Rabi' al-awwal, the third month of the Moon-based Islamic calendar, in which each month is 29-30 days long, following the phases of the Moon. Sighting of that first crescent will be possible just after sunset on November 8 from the Americas and Africa, and is usually quite a challenge, since the Moon at that time is very low and difficult to see in the glow of sunset.

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November 15

Moon at first quarter. Rising at midday and located in the south-southwest at sunset. At the quarter phases, the Moon is about 8% as bright as a full Moon because of the way sunlight is reflected off its rough, spherical surface.

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November 17

Peak of the annual Leonid meteor shower, which is usually a modest display of 10-15 meteors per hour. This year, the light of a waxing gibbous Moon interferes with observations of fainter meteors. The story behind why the Leonid shower is historically important is in Notes.

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November 22

Full Moon, traditionally known to indigenous American natives as the Beaver Moon (Algonquin), the Sassafras Moon (Choctaw), and the Bison Moon (Natchez).

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November 29

Moon at last quarter phase, with half of its Earthward face visible. The exact moment that this occurs is in the afternoon, while the Moon is below the horizon. The next time we see it, the Moon will be when it rises again in the east around midnight, Pacific Time.

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December 6

New Moon. Sighting of the first crescent after new marks the start of Rabi' al-Thani, the fourth month of the Islamic calendar. This sighting is possible from the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia just after sunset on December 8.

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December 14

Peak of the Geminid meteor shower. The light of the nearly first-quarter Moon shouldn't be too much of a problem for observers, since it sets just before midnight, leaving the predawn hours nice and dark for meteor-watching. This shower typically produces about 80 meteors per hour. For observing tips, see Notes.

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December 15

The Moon is at first quarter, rising around 1:00 p.m. At sunset, look for it in the southeast, and as night falls, you'll see the bright, red planet Mars just to the west and the stars of the aquatic constellations Pisces the Fishes, Cetus the Sea Monster, and Aquarius the Water-Carrier around it. It sets in the west just after midnight on the morning of the 16th.

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December 21

Winter solstice for the Northern Hemisphere (on Earth...see October 16). The north pole is tipped farthest away from the Sun and experiences 24 hours of night. As seen from locations north of the equator, the Sun makes its lowest, most southerly arc across the sky. For observers south of the equator, this is the summer solstice, and the Sun makes a long, high arc across the sky.

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December 22

Full Moon, known to indigenous tribes as the Cold Moon (Algonquin), the Moon of the Popping Trees (Lakota Sioux), and the Baby Bear Moon (Osage). Only a day after the winter solstice, the Sun crosses low in the south from horizon to horizon during the day, but the full Moon—being opposite the Sun—follows a long, high arc across the sky.

The full Moon's light interferes with observations of the annual Ursid meteor shower, which is active from December 17-24 and peaks this night. Radiating from the cup of the Little Dipper (aka Ursa Minor the Little Bear), this shower averages about 10 meteors per hour on moonless nights.

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December 29

Moon at last quarter, rising at about 1:30 a.m. on the night of the 28th (technically, on the morning of the 29th).

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December 30

This morning and tomorrow morning, early-risers can close out the year with the stunning predawn sight of four evenly spaced solar system objects, stretching upward and to the right from the eastern horizon, forming a line about 45 degrees long. At the top is the waning crescent Moon, located against the stars of Virgo the Maiden. To its lower-left is brilliant Venus, in Libra the Scales. Lower still is Jupiter, in Scorpius the Scorpion, with the reddish star Antares to its right. The most challenging object to see is the lowest and faintest object in the line, Mercury, which rises only an hour before the Sun.

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