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Moon won't outshine all of December's meteor shower

Mike Lynch says stars have a lot to show us in December.

Starwatch — Mike Lynch column sig
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December treats us to a major meteor shower and a minor one.

The major one is the best of the year, the Geminids. It peaks the night of Dec. 13-14, but the moon will prove to be an obstacle, although not completely.

That night we’ll have a waxing gibbous moon throwing a heck of a lot of light through the sky, visually washing out most of the meteors.

There is a window of opportunity, though. The best time to see any meteor shower is from midnight to just before morning twilight. The good news is that the moon sets about 3 a.m. and with the long nights this month, you’ll have better than three hours to enjoy the Geminids. Lie back in a reclining lawn chair wrapped up in blankets and roll your eyes all around the sky. In the countryside, it’s very possible to see more than 50 meteors an hour.

Dec. 21 marks the winter solstice, with the sun shining directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. It’s the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere and the shortest night in the southern hemisphere. From now until the late June, the sun’s path will slowly migrate northward, and the sun will appear higher and higher in the sky in the northern hemisphere.

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The Venus-Saturn-Jupiter show will continue in the early evening sky all month long. All three planets are nearly equally spaced apart in a diagonal line in the southwest sky. Venus is the lowest and brightest, barely above the horizon at the start of the evening.

Don’t wait too long to check them out because they’ll set one-by-one shortly afterward. In fact, toward the end of December, Venus will sink below the horizon during evening twilight.

Even though it’s December, we can still see a few summer constellations in the early evening western sky.

Look for the “Summer Triangle” of stars; Vega, Altair, and Deneb, the brightest stars in their respective constellations Lyra the Lyre, Aquila the Eagle, and Cygnus the Swan. Deneb, at least 1,400 light-years away, marks the tail of the swan. Elsewhere, the great horse Pegasus is riding high in the southern sky with Cassiopeia the Queen, resembling a bright “W,” perched high in the northern sky. Meanwhile, the Big Dipper is riding very low in the early evening northern sky. Depending on where you live, it may be partially below the horizon.

The later you stay up in the evening, the better you’ll see the fabulous winter constellations.

The best one is Orion the Hunter. Its calling card is the three bright stars in a row that make up his belt.

Preceding Orion is the bright constellation Taurus the Bull, with the beautiful Pleiades star cluster. There’s also Auriga, a constellation that looks like a lopsided pentagon. Its brightest star, Capella, marks one of the corners of the pentagon. Auriga is supposed to be a chariot driver turned goat farmer.

To the north of Orion is the constellation Gemini the Twins, with the bright stars marking the heads of the twin brothers Castor and Pollux.

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Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and author of the book “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications. Send questions to mikewlynch@comcast.net .

The Rochester Astronomy Club welcomes new members and puts on public star parties. Their website is rochesterskies.org .

Related Topics: SCIENCE AND NATURESCIENCE
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