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.)

10 Riveting Facts About Mars

Mars's dust storms can be global. In these images taken a month apart in 2001, the dust storm near the southern polar ice cap (left) soon enveloped the entire planet (right).
Mars's dust storms can be global. In these images taken a month apart in 2001, the dust storm near the southern polar ice cap (left) soon enveloped the entire planet (right).
NASA/JPL-CALTECH/MSSS

Few celestial objects have fascinated humankind throughout history more than the Red Planet. For over a century, we've longed to know more about Mars and the beings that we speculated lived there. When NASA dispelled the notion of creatures scurrying along the rusty plains, it raised a more tantalizing prospect: that we might one day be the creatures that call Mars home.

Mental Floss spoke to Kirby Runyon, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and Tanya Harrison, the director of research for Arizona State University's NewSpace Initiative, to learn more about the place your kids might live one day.

1. A MARTIAN YEAR LASTS JUST UNDER TWO EARTH YEARS.

It takes 687 Earth days for the Red Planet make its way around the Sun. A Mars day—called a sol—lasts 24.6 hours, which would be a nuisance for the circadian rhythms of astronauts (but not as bad as a day on Venus, which lasts 5832 hours).

2. IT'S NOT AS HOT AS IT MIGHT LOOK.

Mars looks desert-hot—New Mexico with hazy skies, red because of its iron oxide soil—but is actually very cold, with a blistering hot sol being 70°F, and a cold sol a brisk -225°F. Its dust storms can be huge; in 2018, one storm grew so large that it encompassed the entire planet for more than a month. (You can see a similarly huge dust storm in the image above.)

3. MARS IS MUCH SMALLER THAN EARTH ...

Compared to Earth, Mars is a tiny Styrofoam ball, with a diameter just over half of ours and one-tenth of our mass. Its gravity will be an absolute nightmare for future colonists, at .38 that of their native planet. (That means a person weighing 100 pounds here would weigh just 38 pounds on Mars.)

4. ... AND ITS ATMOSPHERE IS MOSTLY CARBON DIOXIDE.

You won't want to get a breath of fresh air on Mars unless you're trying to suffocate: Its atmosphere is 95.32 percent carbon dioxide, with a little nitrogen and argon thrown in. (Earth's atmosphere, by contrast, is mostly nitrogen and oxygen.) When you do try to take that single, hopeless breath, the tears on your eyeballs, saliva in your mouth, and water in your lungs will immediately evaporate. You won't die right away, but you'll probably want to.

5. IT HAS TWO MOONS, BOTH WITH BETTER NAMES THAN OURS.

They're called Phobos and Deimos, which translate to Fear and Dread, respectively. They're shaped like potatoes and don't exactly fill the evening sky: Standing on the Martian surface, Phobos would appear to be about one-third the size of Earth's moon; Deimos would look like a bright star.

Future human Martians will have to enjoy Phobos while they can. The tidal forces of Mars are tearing Phobos apart; in 50 million years, the big potato will disintegrate.

In the meantime, Phobos is one of the stepping stones NASA plans to take on its journey to Mars. No part of human exploration of the Red Planet is easy, and before we land on Mars (and then have to figure out how to launch back into space and somehow get back to Earth), it's vastly easier to land on Phobos, do a little reconnaissance, and then take off and return home. As a bonus, on the journey to Phobos [PDF], astronauts can bring along hardware necessary for eventual Martian settlement, making the ride a lot easier for the next astronauts.

6. MARS IS HOME TO THE TALLEST MOUNTAIN IN THE SOLAR SYSTEM.

The tallest mountain on Earth, Mount Everest, is 29,029 feet tall. Olympus Mons on Mars is over 72,000 feet in height, making it the tallest mountain by far on any planet in the solar system.

Olympus Mons isn't the only extraordinary Mars feature: Mountaineers might also want to check out NASA's trail map for hiking the famous Face on Mars. If canyons are more your speed, you'll want to visit Valles Marineris. It is the size of North America and, at its bottom, four miles deep. (In the solar system, only Earth's Atlantic Ocean is deeper.) Once Earth's ice caps finish melting, you can always visit the ones on Mars. (If you have a telescope, you can easily see them; they are the planet's most distinctive features visible from your backyard.)

7. THE IDEA OF MARTIANS GOES BACK OVER A CENTURY.

That's partially because of popular fiction (War of the Worlds, the 1897 novel by H.G. Wells, sees a Martian invasion force invade England) and partially because of Percival Lowell, the famed astronomer who wrote prolifically on the canals he thought he was observing through his telescope, and why they might be necessary for the survival of the Martian people. (Mars was drying up.)

Though it's easy to dismiss such conclusions today, at the time Lowell not only popularized space science like few others, but left behind the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona—one of the oldest observatories in America and the place where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto.

8. IF THERE ARE MARTIANS, THEY ARE MICROBES.

Today, scientists work tirelessly to unlock the complex geologic history of Mars, to determine whether life exists there today, or did long ago. "We think that Mars was most globally conducive to life around 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago," Runyon tells Mental Floss. "In the Mars geologic history, that's the end of the Noachian and toward the beginning of the Hesperian epochs." There may once have been a hemispheric ocean on Mars. Later, the world might have alternated between being wet and dry, with an ocean giving way to massive crater lakes. Where there's water, there's a good chance of life.

"If we found life on Mars—either extinct or current—that's really interesting," says Runyon, "but more interesting than that, is whether this life arose independently on Mars, separate from Earth." It is conceivable that meteorite impacts on Earth blasted life-bearing rocks into space and eventually to the Martian surface: "A second life emergence on Mars is not just a geological question. It's a biogeochemical question. We know that Mars is habitable, but we haven't answered the question of whether it had, or has, life."

9. NASA SPENDS A LOT OF TIME OUT THERE.

Mars hasn't hurt for missions in recent years, though scientists now warn of an exploration desert beyond 2020. But that doesn't mean we humans don't have eyes on the planet. Presently in orbit around the planet are the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which images and scans the planet; MAVEN, which studies its atmosphere; Mars Express, the European Space Agency's first Mars mission; MOM, the first Mars mission by the Indian Space Research Organization; the ESA's ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which is searching for methane in the Martian atmosphere; and Odyssey, which studies Mars for water and ice signatures, and acts as a communications relay for vehicles on the ground.

Rolling around on the Martian surface are Curiosity and Opportunity—NASA missions both—which study Martian geology. Though the Russians and Europeans have tried mightily to do so, NASA is the only space agency to successfully land spacecraft on the Martian surface (seven times).

In November 2018, the InSight mission will land on Mars, where it will study the planet's interior. In 2020, NASA will land the Mars 2020 rover; where Curiosity studies Mars for signs of habitability, Mars 2020 will look for inhabitants.

"It is going to collect samples that will hopefully be brought back to Earth," says Runyon. "The three landing sites selected for Mars 2020 are Northeast Syrtis, Jezero Crater, and Columbia Hills within Gusev Crater, which is where the dead rover Spirit is currently sitting. Each of these sites is a hydrothermal environment dating from the Noachian-Hesperian boundary. These are some of the most perfect places to look for past signs of Martian life, and can help answer the question of whether life had a second genesis on Mars."

10. MARS IS CHANGING, BUT NOBODY KNOWS WHY.

"Most people don't realize how active Mars is," Harrison tells Mental Floss. "Other planets aren't just these dead worlds that are frozen in time outside of our own. There are actually things happening there right now." Imagery from the HiRISE and Context Camera instruments on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have revealed such events as avalanches, sand dune erosion [PDF], and recurring slope lineae (flowing Martian saltwater).

Things are moving, but it's not always clear why. "There's a lot of material that has been eroded away," says Harrison. "We have entire provinces of the planet that look like they've been completely buried and then exhumed. And that's a lot of material. The big question is, where did it all go? And what process eroded it all away?" Curiosity might help answer the question, but to really understand the processes and history of the fourth rock from the Sun, we're going to need to send geologists in spacesuits. "You can't replace human intuition with a rover," Harrison says. "Looking at a picture on your computer is not the same as standing there and looking around at the context, stratigraphic columns, being able to pick up the rocks and manipulate them, take a hammer to things. So once humans land on the surface, it'll be kind of like the difference between what we knew about Mars from Viking and Mars Global Surveyor and then the revolution between Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Our view of what we think happened on Mars is going to completely change, and we'll find out that a lot of what we thought we knew was wrong."

A version of this story ran in 2017.

See What Hurricane Florence Looks Like From Space

NASA via Getty Images
NASA via Getty Images

As Hurricane Florence continues to creep its way toward the Carolinas, it’s repeatedly being described as both "the storm of the century” and "the storm of a lifetime” for parts of the coastlines of North and South Carolina. While that may sound like hyperbole to some, Alexander Gerst—an astronaut with the European Space Agency—took to Twitter to prove otherwise with a few amazing photos, and issued a warning to “Watch out, America!”

According to the National Weather Service, “Hurricane Florence will be approaching the Carolina shores as the day progresses on Thursday. Although the exact timing, location, and eventual track of Florence isn't known, local impacts will likely begin in the afternoon hours and only worsen with time throughout the evening and overnight period.”

On Tuesday, Wilmington, North Carolina's National Weather Service took the warning even one step further, writing: "This will likely be the storm of a lifetime for portions of the Carolina coast, and that's saying a lot given the impacts we've seen from Hurricanes Diana, Hugo, Fran, Bonnie, Floyd, and Matthew. I can't emphasize enough the potential for unbelievable damage from wind, storm surge, and inland flooding with this storm.”

Gerst’s photos certainly drive that point home.

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