Meteor Showers, a Supermoon, and the Solstice: A Guide to the December Night Sky

Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

This has been a fantastic year for sky watching. Eclipses in particular had their day in the Sun, with celestial objects blotting each other out as if in competition. There was a penumbral lunar eclipse and an annular solar eclipse in February, and then in August, a partial lunar eclipse was followed up by a mind-blowing total solar eclipse. If you missed any or all of those events, don't lose heart: they will happen again and again and again, in your lifetime and beyond. Celestial mechanics guarantee it. The year isn't over yet, though, and December has a few wonderful events up its sleeve. Here are four things you should be on the lookout for in the skies above.

DECEMBER 3: THE ONLY SUPERMOON OF 2017

I know, supermoons are so 2016. There were six that year, if you don't recall. (I do, because I had to think of new things to write about every single one of them.) This year has been a bit less active in terms of super lunar events, with a total of zero must-see giant moons for your viewing pleasure. That changes on December 3 with the first and only supermoon of the year, and it has a great name at that: the Full Cold Supermoon. The "cold" part of the name, according to the Old Farmers Almanac, derives from Native American tradition. (They weren't being creative here; it's just really cold in December.) The "super" part is because the Moon will be at perigee—that is, the closest to Earth it's going to get in its orbit. The moon's orbit is not a perfect circle, meaning it sometimes appears larger in the sky than others.

Expect a moon that's about 14 percent larger than when it is at apogee (farthest from Earth), though, unless you are an obsessive moonwatcher, the larger size will be nearly imperceptible. My advice is to point at the moon when your friends are around and say something like, “Hey, check that out. I think that's a supermoon! You might not notice a difference, but I sure do. Compared to the moon at apogee, it's huge! Why, it's got to be 14 percent larger, at least. Wow!” Then change the subject quickly, because nobody likes a know-it-all.

DECEMBER 13–14: MORE THAN 100 METEORS PER HOUR

The Geminid meteor shower is considered the best meteor shower of the year, and it peaks after midnight between December 13 and 14. If you are in an area of low (or no) light pollution, and if you give your eyes an hour to adjust to total darkness, and if the weather is good (a lot of "ifs," but worth it if you can arrange things), you can expect to see more than 100 meteors per hour. Geminid meteors are a result of the Earth colliding into the debris field of the asteroid Phaethon, an unusual "rock comet" that leaves behind dust- and sand-sized particles as it circles the Sun. A speck of dust might not seem like much, but when the atmosphere of a 13,170,000,000,000,000,000,000,000-pound planet plows into it at tens of thousands of miles per hour, it is vaporized in a beautiful streak of light.

As if that isn't cool enough, on December 16, Phaethon itself will make its closest approach to Earth in 43 years! Yes, the Minor Planet Center officially considers Phaethon to be a "potentially hazardous object," but before you dust off your Y2K prepper supplies, know that the asteroid will be 27 times farther away than the Moon generally is from the Earth. Sadly, it is unlikely to affect the meteor shower in any measurable way.

DECEMBER 21: THE WINTER SOLSTICE

December 21 will play host to the longest night of the year. Why? Because the Earth's axis is tilted by about 23.5 degrees, and as we orbit the Sun, different latitudes are in direct sunlight. Presently, the southern hemisphere is “closer” to the Sun than the northern. On the 21st, the Tropic of Capricorn (latitude -23.5 degrees) will be in the overhead sun and will receive 13 hours, 27 minutes of daylight. The higher in latitude you go from the Tropic of Capricorn, the less daylight that part of the Earth will receive. The equator will get 12 hours of sunlight. The North Pole will get zero seconds of daylight. The Tropic of Cancer will get about 10.5 hours.

We call this the Winter Solstice, and it's when you'll find some of the best parties of the year. That much night, after all, and anything can happen. Starting on the 22nd, the days will begin to get longer in the northern hemisphere, with spring soon to follow.

DECEMBER 22: THE URSID METEOR SHOWER

Just before sunrise on the morning of December 22, as you're stumbling home from that killer Winter Solstice party, look up. Well, first find a spot with low light pollution and give your eyes time to adjust, and then look up. You will be treated to the annual Ursid meteor shower, here to ring out 2017—and not a minute too soon.

The Ursids are no Geminids; at best you'll only catch 10 meteors an hour, but because the Moon will be but a sliver, the natural skies should be nice and dark. Weather not cooperating? Don't worry. You should be able to catch an Ursid or two through December 25. (Note that on the night of the 24th, what you suspect is an Ursid might be a sleigh carrying cargo and an elderly, bearded man. A distinct red hue will help you distinguish the two. One is a shooting star. The other is Rudolph's nose.)

Life on Nearby Exoplanet Barnard's Star B Might Be Possible, According to Astronomers

iStock.com/PavelSmilyk
iStock.com/PavelSmilyk

Despite contradictory statements from UFO eyewitnesses, we have yet to confirm the presence of intelligent life beyond Earth. But astronomers continue to flirt with that hope. The most recent speculation comes from Barnard’s Star, the second-closest star system to Earth, which is circled by a frozen super-Earth dubbed Barnard's Star b. While its surface might be as cold as -274°F, there may just be potential for life.

According to CNET, the chilly Barnard's Star b—located 6 light years away from Earth—could still be hospitable to living organisms. Astrophysicists at Villanova University speculate the planet could have a hot liquid-iron core that produces geothermal energy. That warmth might support primitive life under the icy surface. A similar situation could possibly occur on Jupiter’s moon, Europa, where tidal heating might allow for subsurface oceans containing living things.

Barnard's Star b has a mass just over three times that of Earth. The conclusions about potential life were drawn by Villanova researchers from 15 years of photometry examination of the solar system [PDF].

“The most significant aspect of the discovery of Barnard’s star b is that the two nearest star systems to the Sun are now known to host planets,” Scott Engle, a Villanova astrophysicist, said in a statement. “This supports previous studies based on Kepler Mission data, inferring that planets can be very common throughout the galaxy, even numbering in the tens of billions. Also, Barnard’s Star is about twice as old as the Sun—about 9 billion years old compared to 4.6 billion years for the Sun. The universe has been producing Earth-size planets far longer than we, or even the Sun itself, have existed.”

Scientists hope to learn more about the potential for life on Barnard's Star b as new, more powerful telescopes are put into use. NASA’s delayed James Webb Space Telescope could be one such solution. Its 21-foot mirror—three times the size of the Hubble—is set to open in 2021.

[h/t CNET]

15 Fantastic Buzz Aldrin Quotes

Christopher Polk, Getty Images
Christopher Polk, Getty Images

Buzz Aldrin—born Edwin Eugene Aldrin Jr. on January 20, 1930—celebrates his 89th birthday this year. The fighter pilot-turned-astronaut flew on Apollo 11 and became one of the first people to set foot on the Moon (and was one of just 12 to do so). Over the course of his life, Aldrin has learned a lot, and he’s shared his wisdom in a number of books and interviews. Here are a few of his most awesome and inspirational quotes.

1. “From the distance of the Moon, Earth was four times the size of a full moon seen from Earth. It was a brilliant jewel in the black velvet sky. Yet it was still at a great distance, considering the challenges of the voyage home.” —From an interview with Scholastic

2. “‘Where are the billions and billions and billions of people, on what I'm looking at? We're the only three that are not back there.' And we didn't get to celebrate. Because we were out of town.” —On what he was thinking as he looked back at Earth from the Moon, from a Reddit AMA

An image of astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing on the Moon.
NASA/Getty Images

3. “Some people don’t like to admit that they have failed or that they have not yet achieved their goals or lived up to their own expectations. But failure is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign that you are alive and growing.” —From the book No Dream is Too High

4. “As the senior crew member, it was appropriate for [Neil Armstrong] to be the first. But after years and years of being asked to speak to a group of people and then be introduced as the second man on the Moon, it does get a little frustrating. Is it really necessary to point out to the crowd that somebody else was first when we all went through the same training, we all landed at the same time and all contributed? But for the rest of my life I'll always be identified as the second man to walk on the Moon. [Laughs.]” —From an interview with National Geographic

5. “Resilience is what humans have and resilience is what humans need to take advantage of—their ability to explore and to understand and then to react positively and with motivation, not as a defeatist, to the constant flow of challenges. Negativity doesn’t get anybody anywhere. It takes reacting to all of life in a positive way to make the most out of what you’ve experienced and to make a better life and a better world.” —From an interview with Biography.com

6. “The urge to explore has propelled evolution since the first water creatures reconnoitered the land. Like all living systems, cultures cannot remain static; they evolve or decline. They explore or expire.” —From a 1999 article in the Albuquerque Tribune

An image of the Apollo 11 astronauts getting out of their lunar vehicle into a boat on the ocean.
NASA/Newsmakers/Getty Images

7. “There's a tremendously satisfying freedom associated with weightlessness. It's challenging in the absence of traction or leverage, and it requires thoughtful readjustment. I found the experience of weightlessness to be one of the most fun and enjoyable, challenging and rewarding, experiences of spaceflight. Returning to Earth brings with it a great sense of heaviness, and a need for careful movement. In some ways it's not too different from returning from a rocking ocean ship.” —From an interview with Scholastic

8. “It certainly didn't make me feel lonely, except to realize that we were as far away as people had ever been. Once we were on the surface of the Moon we could look back and see the Earth, a little blue dot in the sky. We are a very small part of the solar system and the whole universe. The sky was black as could be, and the horizon was so well defined as it curved many miles away from us into space.” —From an interview with National Geographic

An image of Buzz Aldrin's boot and footprint on the Moon.
Keystone/Getty Images

9. “I know the sky is not the limit, because there are footprints on the Moon—and I made some of them! So don’t allow anyone to denigrate or inhibit your lofty aspirations. Your dream can take you might higher and much farther than anyone ever thought possible! I know mine did.” —From the book No Dream Is Too High

10. “Take a good, long, honest, positive look at what good can come out of every situation you’re in. Wherever you are, that’s where you are. You’re there with it. This is your history you’re living right now. So do what you can to make the most of what comes along. And please, don’t try to do everything on your own. There are a lot of people out there in the universe who wish you well and want to be your friend. Let them help you. You don’t have to carry it all on your own.” —From an interview with Biography.com

11. “Your mind is like a parachute: If it isn’t open, it doesn’t work.” —From the book No Dream Is Too High

12. “I prefer the soft singing voice of Karen Carpenter. I have heard Frank Sinatra sing 'Fly Me to the Moon' almost too many times. So I'm interested in composing a new song, entitled "Get Your Ass to Mars!" —From a Reddit AMA

13. “Fear paralyzes in many ways, but especially if it keeps you from responding wisely and intelligently to challenges. The only way to overcome your fears is to face them head-on.” —From the book No Dream Is Too High

An image of Buzz Aldrin performing an experiment on the Moon.
NASA/Newsmakers/Getty Images

14. “My first words of my impression of being on the surface of the Moon that just came to my mind was ‘magnificent desolation’. [...] there is no place on Earth as desolate as what I was viewing in those first moments on the lunar surface. Because I realized what I was looking at, towards the horizon and in every direction, had not changed in hundreds, thousands of years. Beyond me I could see the Moon curving away—no atmosphere, black sky. Cold. Colder than anyone could experience on Earth when the Sun is up […] No sign of life whatsoever. That is desolate. More desolate than any place on Earth.” —From a Reddit AMA

15. “Choose your heroes wisely, and be careful who you idolize. Why? Simple: you will become like the people with whom you most often associate.” —From the book No Dream Is Too High

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