December skywatchers have loads of cosmic holiday treats to enjoy, from an annual meteor shower to a ghost of a comet.
Early December comet watchers will want to get up before dawn in early December to scan the eastern horizon for any signs of Comet ISON. After its roasting and near-death experience as it rounded the sun in late November, the icy visitor appears to have survived – at least a fragment of the originalnucleus has. For
skywatchers this means there is still hope that they may get to see the much-hyped comet with the naked eye or at least binoculars, astronomers say.
Experts predict that ISON would be most impressive from dark-sky locations, away from city lights, because of its rapidly fading brightness as the comet is now rapidly moving away from the sun. Expect to find the comet’s “head” to be tiny in comparison with the tail – possibly even difficult to glimpse with the unaided eye.
Best bets are to scan close to the eastern horizon with binoculars – about an hour before sunrise the first two weeks of December – after which the comet is expected to fade from view quickly.
Also this month sees one of the best annual sky shows around – the Geminid meteor shower, which this year peaks on the night of Dec. 13 into the following pre-dawn hours. Normally one of the best meteor showers to put on a great light show, the Geminids will be hampered this year because of the blinding glare of the moon.
But don’t be discouraged, it’s still worth looking up in the late night of Dec. 13, into the next morning. That’s the peak time for the shower and the Geminids are known to produce nice fireballs. Even from the West Island under clear skies there is a good chance of seeing a handful of these baseball-sized space rocks burning up high above your backyard that night. Like all meteor showers, it takes its name from the constellation the shooting stars appear to come from in the sky. In this case that’s Gemini, the twins from Greek legends.
Best bet is to put your back to the moon while seated on a reclining chair. Of course, don’t forget to dress warmly and bring hot chocolate! If you received a new telescope this holiday season, then it will be worth your while to point it at 1.2-billion-kilometre distant Saturn. The gas giant’s famous rings are one of the best sights you will ever see in the heavens! And it will be easy to find Saturn just before dawn on Dec. 28, when it will be rising in the east next to the moon. The pair will look absolutely stunning with the naked eye and binoculars, too! Meanwhile throughout December that sparking beacon hanging low in the west at sunset is Venus – the brightest planet in the entire sky. Coming in a close second is the granddaddy of the solar system, Jupiter, which shines between constellations Gemini and Orion. In the east after nightfall, the 600-million-kilometre distant gas giant is so bright that it outshines all surrounding stars. Finally for those moonless nights when the stars come out to play, take note of some of winter’s brightest constellations rising in the east during suppertime. Leading the pack is Orion, the hunter, with its distinct three-star belt closest to the horizon. To the left is Gemini, a pair of bright stars marking the two heads of the twins. Just above Orion is Taurus, the Bull, with its sideways V-shape cluster of stars. These two landmark constellations will be rising higher and earlier in the evening skies over the course of the next few months.
On Dec. 13 at 8 p.m. join the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada for a Geminid Shower Party at the Bellevue Observatory in the Morgan Arboretum in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue. Public talk, rain or shine, followed by telescope views of the heavens (weather permitting).
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