The final month of 2017 brings with it one of the most spectacular meteor showers of the year, ensuring that this year ends with a bang.
The Geminids meteor shower is active between December 4 and 16 with the peak occurring on the night of the 13th and before dawn on the 14th. This shower is named after the constellation of Gemini as the meteors seem to radiate out from this part of the sky.
However, this is just a chance alignment as the source of the meteors is from an object that can be found closer to our planet – the asteroid 3200 Phaethon.
The moon will make its appearance a few hours before sunrise and will be in its waning crescent phase which means that interference from its light is minimal. If conditions are perfect on this date, observers might be able to see up to 120 meteors per hour.
In reality, the rate is likely to be lower because of light pollution, clouds and even the presence of tall trees and buildings obscuring parts of the horizon.
Don’t be put off, however, as meteor watching is one of the easiest and most hassle-free activities that you can do if you want to get into stargazing. You just need to have a little bit of patience and look up.
Orion the hunter is a very recognisable winter constellation that will be visible all month. It will rise earlier and earlier in the evening with each passing day. The easiest way to find Orion is to look for the three stars in his belt.
These stars will be enclosed by four stars that make up the points of a rectangle and represent Orion’s shoulders and feet. The bright red star on the top left is Betelgeuse, a red supergiant star that is nearing the end of its life.
On the bottom right is the blue supergiant star Rigel. These different colours tell us that Rigel is much, much hotter than Betelgeuse.
Coincidently, you can use Rigel and Betelgeuse to help you find the constellation of Gemini. Extend the line between these two stars up and away from the horizon. On either side of this imaginary line are two bright stars called Pollux and Castor which symbolise the heads of the twins.
Early risers will be able to spot Mars and Jupiter before sunrise every day in December. Optical equipment is not needed to see them as they are bright enough to see with the naked eye.
However, telescopes may be able to reveal Mars’ white polar caps and the stripes of Jupiter. From around 6am on the December 14, stargazers will be able to find the waning crescent moon nestled in between the two planets.
The Moon will pass Jupiter on the following morning but Mars and Jupiter will appear to get closer and closer as this year draws to an end.
Upcoming events at the Royal Observatory Greenwich –
Silver Screen Science Fiction: 2010: The Year We Make Contact
Date and time: December 16 at 6.45pm-9.15pm.
£15 Adult; £13 Concessions.