The December Night Sky
Star gazing is a wonderful activity any time of year, but something about a cold, clear and moonless winter night makes it seem even more magical. There is science behind the magic of winter star gazing; lower humidity in the winter atmosphere means clearer, crisper viewing.
There are many excellent locations throughout The Last Green Valley to star gaze, and there is a reason we refer to our region as “green by day, dark by night.” The key is finding a location with lots of open sky (few trees and hills) and little to no ambient light from buildings and streetlights. You’ll find a few suggestions in our Explore guide, both in print and online. You’ll also find that some libraries offer telescopes on loan. A good pair of binoculars can also do the trick if you want to try and get a closer look.
For me, my back pasture serves me just fine, and I’ll be looking for those clear moonless nights this month to head out back to see what’s up in the sky. I like to take a lawn chair and sometimes a reclining one for just laying back, staring into the night sky and contemplating the vast universe.
Greek mythology accounts for many of the names we know for the constellations in the sky, and it is what I am most familiar with. But every culture has its own constellation stories and there are wonderful, children friendly, Native American tales of the night sky that you may find even more enjoyable to share with your family.
My favorite winter constellation is Orion, probably since it was my dad who showed it to me when I was a child. It is easy to spot in the center of the night sky and is named after the hunter of Greek mythology. Another favorite is Taurus, also of Greek fame, it represents Zeus in the form of a bull. I also look for what we always call the Big Dipper, which is part of the constellation Ursa Major the “great bear” that guards the polar region. Polaris, also currently known as the North Star, is easy to spot and part of the Ursa Minor constellation, commonly referred to as the Little Dipper.
When it comes to information on the night sky and astronomy there is no better source of information than Geoff McLean, one of TLGV’s Rangers and Lead Night Sky Ranger. He is also a volunteer NASA Solar System Ambassador and conducts astronomy programs for The Last Green Valley throughout the year. Geoff also creates a “What’s Up in Night Sky” video every month on the TLGV YouTube Channel. Just search for The Last Green Valley on YouTube to find it. More information about Geoff and his astronomy presentations can be found at his website:
In addition to good constellation viewing, December is also the month of two meteor showers. I contacted Geoff to get more information, and here is his description of the Geminid and Ursid meteor showers arriving in December.
“The Geminid meteor showers occur in early December — from the 4th to the 17th with a peak of about 150 meteors per hour on Dec. 13 -14. The Geminids, unlike most other meteor showers do not originate with a comet, but from asteroid 3200 Phaethon. This unusual asteroid enters the inner planetary orbits and the debris field from sublimating ice contains the rice sized particles the Earth runs into in its orbit. Sublimation is when a solid turns into a gas without first becoming a liquid.
This year the showers’ peak occurs almost at full moon so the fireballs of particles burning up in our atmosphere will be difficult to see with such a bright moon. They are best viewed in the pre-dawn hours. Look to the east-north-east at 8 p.m., over head at midnight, and to the west just before sunrise to catch one of the biggest showers of the year.
The Ursid meteor show also occurs in mid-December (17-26 peaking on Dec. 22). Unfortunately, these showers will be all but invisible due to the moon. They originate in Ursa Major (where the Big Dipper is located) and are the result of debris from comet 8P/Tuttle as its water ice is sublimated as it nears the sun. It has peaked as high as 170 meteorites per hour, but that is unlikely to occur this year. Combined with a bright moon observing them will be difficult at best.”
Star gazing is a fascinating and fun activity, especially for children, and, of course, the kid in all of us. I hope you take time this winter to get out on those cold nights and look to the stars. You might be lucky enough to see the Geminid or Ursid meteor showers, and certainly the major constellations, which have been studied, enjoyed, and revered by humankind for millennia.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. Green by day, and dark by night. I hope you’ll join me and together let us enjoy it, care for it, and pass it on.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at 860-774-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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