Skywatch Line for Monday, New Year’s Day, and Tuesday, January 1st and 2nd, 2018

This is the Dudley Observatory Skywatch Line for Monday, New Year’s Day, and Tuesday, January 1st and 2nd written by Joe Slomka.

The Sun sets at 4:32 PM; night falls at 6:14. Dawn breaks at 5:44 AM and ends with sunrise at 7:26.

As we endure a severe cold snap, the New Year begins with the Earth being at its closest to the Sun. On Wednesday, January 3rd, at 1:34 AM, our planet lies 147,097,233 KM (91,401,383 miles) from our star; the average distance is 93,000,000 miles. However, our frigid winters are due to the North Pole being pointed away from the solar heat.

In addition, New Year’s Day sees a Full Chief Moon making the closest perigee of the year – 365,565 KM (227,151 miles). The Moon’s proximity to Earth will cause especially high tides to coastal areas. The Moon inhabits Gemini on both nights, rising at 4:27 PM on Monday and 5:34 PM on Tuesday. The Moon sets after daylight on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings.

Neptune dimly shines at 8th magnitude in Aquarius, while Uranus, in Pisces, appears brighter at magnitude 5.8. However, both planets must contend with the Full Moon’s glare and become difficult to observe. Neptune sets at 9:37 PM and Uranus sets at 1:16 AM.

By midnight, the constellation Leo rides high in the southeast. Ceres, the largest member of the Asteroid Belt, shines with 7th magnitude above the Lion’s nose. Detailed charts are required to find this asteroid, discovered on New Year’s Day in 1801. Again, the Full Moon makes observation difficult.

A well-dressed observer may brave our freezing pre-dawn temperatures to witness the close pairing of Jupiter and Mars in Libra. Mars rises at 2:55 AM, followed by Jupiter at 3:05. The two lie near the star Zubenelgenubi, about 2 degrees apart on Tuesday, 1 ½ degrees apart on Wednesday.

Civil dawn finds Mercury, in Ophiuchus, about 33 degrees below the Jupiter/Mars group; Mercury glows with minus 0.3 magnitude and appears about 65 percent illuminated. Saturn makes a return to our skies by appearing very low in the southeast, rising at 6:40 AM and shining at 0.5 magnitude.

New Year’s Day opens the first page of the Gregorian calendar, which we use daily. Until 1582, the calendar Julius Caesar adopted was still in effect. It became increasingly apparent that the calendar was out of step with civil and religious seasons. A little known Italian doctor, Aloysius Lilius, wrote a letter to the Pope pointing out this problem. An initially skeptical Cardinal Christopher Clavius saw the wisdom of Lilius’ solutions, which made minor changes to the Julian calendar, and championed them before the newly elected Pope. The Pope declared the reformed calendar effective on October 15, 1582. Catholic countries quickly adopted the change, even though people “lost” 10 days that year. Slowly other countries adopted it – the last being the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Alas, Lilius is almost forgotten, while the calendar was named for the Pope and a major crater on the Moon enshrines Clavius.

Skywatch Line for Friday, December 29 through Sunday, December 31, 2017

This is Dudley Observatory’s Skywatch Line for Friday, December 29 through Sunday, December 31, written by Sam Salem.

On Friday, Sun rises at 7:26am and sets at 4:30pm; Waxing Gibbous Moon rises at 1:55pm and sets at 4:15am on the following day.

Mars, Jupiter and Mercury rise before the start of morning twilight. Mars, at 1.5 magnitude, is the first to appear in the east-southeast horizon at around 3:30am. Close behind Mars is Jupiter, gleaming at magnitude –1.8. Last up is Mercury, at magnitude –0.2. Mercury, which is now midway through a favorable morning apparition, rises shortly after 6 am. Mercury climbs to an altitude of nearly 10 degrees by the time twilight brightens the sky. Draw an imaginary line from Mars through Jupiter to find Mercury near the sunrise point on the horizon. Mercury is at greatest elongation on Monday, sitting 23 degrees west of the Sun. This is a good opportunity to view the planet at dawn.

On Saturday night, watch the Moon pass in front of Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus the Bull. The Moon occults Aldebaran for the last time this year. This is a dark-limb occultation, which is considerably more spectacular than the bright-limb version as the lack of glare allows the occultation to be more easily observed and timed. In our area the occultation begins around 6:25pm and ends around 7:16pm.

On Sunday night, look for the star Sirius highest in the sky around midnight, or midway between sunset and sunrise. Sirius is highest in the sky at midnight every New Year’s. Astronomers call this a “midnight culmination” of Sirius. Sirius might also be called the New Year’s star. Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, sometimes called the Dog Star because it’s part of the constellation Canis Major, the Greater Dog. Its name means sparkling or scorching. You can always recognize Sirius because the 3 noticeable stars in Orion’s Belt point to it. Sirius will be highest up for the night around 10pm on February 1, as the stars rise and set two hours earlier with each passing month.

Saturday marks the birthday of John N. Bahcall, the American astrophysicist who pioneered the development of neutrino astrophysics in the early 1960s. Born in December 30, 1934, Bahcall theorized that neutrinos could be used to understand how stars shine. The subatomic particles have no charge and have exceedingly weak interaction with matter. Neutrinos are emitted from the Sun and stars during the fusion energy creation process. Most neutrinos are able to pass through the Earth without being stopped. Bahcall calculated the expected output of neutrinos from the Sun. He won the National Medal of Science in 1998 for his pioneering research in neutrino astrophysics and for his contributions to the planning and development of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Skywatch Line for Wednesday, December 27th, and Thursday, December 28th, 2017

This is the Dudley Observatory Skywatch Line for Wednesday, December 27th, and Thursday, December 28th, written by Louis Suarato.

The 66% illuminated, waxing gibbous Moon rises at 12:52 p.m. Wednesday. As the sky darkens, you’ll see that the Moon resides high in the southeast, in the constellation Pisces. Pisces is the 14th largest constellation. Pisces and Virgo are the only constellations in which the ecliptic, the path of the Sun, Moon, and Planets, and the celestial equator intersect. M74, also known as NGC 628, is a face-on spiral galaxy in Pisces. It is estimated to contain 100 billion suns, and is about 32 million light-years away. To find M74, look about 11 degrees to the south of the star Sheratan in the constellation Aries.

Mars and Jupiter are moving toward their close encounter in January. The two planets are now separated by 5 degrees. Mars rises at 3:02 a.m., followed 22 minutes later by Jupiter. Mars completes a full orbit around the Sun in 687 days, while a year on Jupiter is 4,300 days, or 11.7 Earth-years. Mars and Jupiter will be less than a degree apart on January 7th. You must look very low over the southeastern horizon for Mercury when it rises at 6 a.m. before it’s lost in the glow of sunrise.

December 27 is the birth date of astronomer Johannes Kepler. Born in 1571, Kepler was an assistant to the astronomer Tycho Brahe in Prague. When Brahe died, Kepler used his data of planetary positions to formulate three laws of planetary motion. Kepler’s laws stated (1) The planets path around the Sun is elliptical, with the center of the Sun being located at one focus. (2) If an imaginary line were drawn from the center of the Sun to the center of a planet, that line would sweep out the same area during equal periods of time. (3) The ratio of the squares of the orbital periods of any two planets is equal to the ratio of the cubes of their average distances from the Sun. These laws laid the foundation for Isaac Newton’s laws of gravity.

Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday, December 25th, Christmas Day, and 26th, 2017

This is the Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday, December 25th, Christmas Day, and 26th.

The Sun sets at 4:27 PM; night falls at 6:09. Dawn begins at 5:42 AM and ends with the Sun rising at 7:52.

Civil Dusk’s main feature is the First Quarter Moon in Pisces on Monday. It blazes at minus 9th magnitude, appears about 45 percent illuminated and 31 arc-minutes in size. Tuesday finds a slightly fatter and brighter Moon in Cetus, the Whale. Monday’s Moon sets at 11:40 PM; Tuesday’s Moon sets at 12:45 AM, Wednesday.

Outer Planets Neptune and Uranus pose a challenge for observers, due to the brilliant Moon on both nights. Neptune is still located in Aquarius, near the star Hydor, while Uranus hovers over Mu Piscium. Neptune sets at 8:03 PM; Uranus sets at 1:44 AM. Both planets require detailed sky charts from astronomy magazines or media.

Ceres was the first asteroid discovered. It was discovered on Jan 1, 1800. Ceres was the goddess of agriculture and taught humans to grow grain. Ceres orbits the Sun about midway between Jupiter and Mars. It is the largest asteroid, about 600 miles across. Ceres, located in Leo, is three degrees above the bright star Epsilon Leonis (the Lion’s Nose), glowing at 7th magnitude and appearing as a tiny 0.7 arc-second. Once the Moon sets, the observer needs detailed charts to locate this Dwarf Planet.

There is a lot of confusion about asteroids. The “asteroid belt” is usually pictured in movies as an almost solid belt of huge rocks. Actually, there are many thousands of miles between rocks of varying sizes. Scientists think they know the composition of some asteroids from meteorites. Several spacecraft studied asteroids, and others are in various stages of planning.

The night sky remains without planets until Mars rises in Libra at 3 AM. It shines with 1.5 magnitude, appears abut 94 percent illuminated and a tiny 4.7 arc-seconds in size.

Jupiter, 5 degrees below Mars, is slowly catching up with the Red Planet. The Solar System’s largest planet is found up next to Zubenelgenubi (Alpha Librae). Jupiter rises at 3:27 AM. The star shines at 2nd magnitude, while Jupiter blazes at minus 1.8.

Mercury peeks above the eastern horizon at 5:40 AM, about 27 degrees below Jupiter. It blazes at zero magnitude, appears larger than Mars and is about 45 percent illuminated.

This time of the year was dedicated to Saturn, the Roman God of Harvests. A series of feasts were held during the week of the Winter Solstice – the Saturnalia. Saturn was depicted as a jolly old man. People decorated evergreen trees. Candles were lit everywhere. Houses were decorated with wreaths and Holly. Ornate cookies were baked. People wore red peaked hats, similar to the “Santa hats” of today. Banquets were held both in honor of the harvest and wishing for a prosperous new year. Masters served their slaves. Special dinner clothes were worn instead of the usual toga. Gifts were exchanged: dolls for the children, candles and fruits for adults. Donations and benefits were held for the poor. Sometimes short poems were attached to the gifts as an early version of the “greeting card.” Saturnalia was an official government holiday. Gambling was legal only during the festivities. The holiday was so popular that the Christians moved the feast of Christ’s birth to compete and adopted many of the symbols and traditions of this pagan feast.

The Dudley Observatory and Albany Amateur Astronomers wish their followers Happy Holidays.

Skywatch Line for Friday, December 22 through Sunday, December 24, 2017

This is Dudley Observatory’s Skywatch Line for Friday, December 22 through Sunday, December 24, written by Sam Salem.

On Friday, Sun rises at 7:24am and sets at 4:25pm; Waxing Crescent Moon rises at 10:14am and sets at 8:37pm.

All the planetary actions take place in the morning sky. First to rise in the east-southeast horizon shortly after 3:30am is the 1.6-magnitude Mars, Next up is Jupiter, at magnitude −1.8, shortly after 4am. By the time twilight starts to brighten the sky, Jupiter is about 20 degrees above the southeast horizon. Last to appear is Mercury, at magnitude 0.8, which is at the start of dawn apparition. It rises more than an hour before the Sun.  Mercury will be higher and brighter next week.

Look in the west shortly after sunset to find a famous Summer Triangle asterism.  The Summer Triangle consists of three bright stars in three different constellations. They are Vega in the constellation Lyra the Harp, Deneb in the constellation Cygnus the Swan, and Altair in the constellation Aquila the Eagle.  It’s called the summer triangle, because summer is the season in which these stars are out from dusk until dawn.  If you look for this pattern this month, you’ll find that, around the time of the winter solstice and the New Year, the Summer Triangle is descending in the west in early evening. It’s getting closer each evening to disappearing into the sunset glare.

Find the Northern Cross shining high in the west at nightfall.  It’s a large, easy to spot star pattern. The star Deneb marks the top of the Northern Cross, and the star Albireo marks the bottom.  It sinks downward during the evening hours, and stands over the west-northwest horizon around mid-evening. The Northern Cross is an asterism.  It’s part of the constellation Cygnus the Swan.  Use a pair of binoculars and point them toward the Northern Cross and its larger constellation Cygnus. In this direction, you’ll find a part of our Milky Way galaxy that is called the Cygnus Star Cloud. It is part of the spiral arm of our galaxy that also contains our Sun.  You should be able to pick out stars from it if the night is clear in your area.

The early winter sky is rich with deep-sky treasures.  Use binoculars to look at the open cluster Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, in Taurus.  Also known as Messier 45 (M45), the cluster looks like a miniature, short-handled version of the Big Dipper.  Under a very clear, dark sky, try to catch sight of the nebulosity near blue-white star, Merope in the Pleiades. In 10×50 binocular, the glow resembles a faint, broad comet tail extending south from the star.  A small, low-power scope also shows this feature well.

Friday marks the birthday of the US amateur astronomer and radio engineer, Grote Reber.  Born in December 22, 2011, Reber self-financed and built the first radio telescope. He pioneered the new field of radio astronomy, and was the first to systematically study the sky by observing non-visible radiation. Reber constructed a 9-meter dish antenna in his back yard and built three different detectors before finding 160 MHz signals in 1939. He was the first to find evidence that galactic radiation is non-thermal, and first to produce radio maps of the sky in 1941.

Skywatch Line for Wednesday, December 20th, and Thursday, December 21st, 2017

This is the Dudley Observatory Skywatch Line for Wednesday, December 20th, and Thursday, December 21st, written by Louis Suarato.

The 7% illuminated, waxing crescent Moon sets at 6:44 Wednesday night. As the Moon is setting, the constellation Orion will be rising in the east.. Orion lies on the celestial equator, providing a view for both southern and northern hemisphere observers. It is the 26th largest constellation, and the brightest. Orion is the only constellation to contain two 1stmagnitude stars, Rigel and Betelgeuse. Betelgeuse, also known as Alpha Orionis, is the 9th brightest star in the sky. This red supergiant is one of the largest and most luminous stars visible to the naked eye, and is 1,000 times the size of our Sun. If Betelgeuse were placed at the center of our solar system, it would extend past the asteroid belt. Rigel, the 7th brightest star in the sky, and brightest star in Orion, is a binary star consisting of blue supergiant, Rigel A, and the fainter Rigel B. Along with Aldebaran, Capella, Procyon, Sirius, Castor, and Pollux, Rigel and Betelgeuse form the asterism known as the Winter Circle, or Winter Hexagon. The “Hunter” is also the home to the brightest nebula, M42. This stellar nursery can easily be seen with binoculars or a small telescope. Look for the “sword” hanging from Orion’s belt of three stars. The Great Orion Nebula is the fuzzy star in the middle of the sword. At the center of M42 is the Trapezium Cluster. The open cluster of stars was first discovered by Galileo Galilei on February 4, 1617. Galileo sketched three stars of the Trapezium, but apparently could not resolve the others that were later seen with higher power telescopes. Telescopes with 5 inch apertures have been able to see six stars within the Trapezium under good observing conditions.

Planet watchers must wait until early Thursday morning as Mars rises at 3:06, followed by Jupiter at 3:44. The Winter Solstice, when Earth’s axis is tilted furthest away from the Sun, and when the Sun reaches its southernmost declination, occurs at 11:28 a.m. EST, Thursday. Thursday is also the shortest day of the year, yielding 10 hours and 6 minutes of daylight.

The Albany Area Amateur Astronomers invite you to join them for their last monthly meeting of the year. December’s meeting will be the annual Winter Solstice member’s potpourii. Traditionally, members have shared their astrophotography, or discussed astronomy related book and article reviews. The meeting will be held at miSci in Schenectady, Thursday night, December 21st, beginning at 7:30.

Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday, December 18th and 19th, 2017

This is the Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday, December 18th and 19th.

The Sun sets at 4:23 PM; night falls at 6:05. Dawn breaks at 5:39 AM and ends with the Sun rising at 7:21.

Outer planets Neptune and Uranus are the only planets visible until after Midnight. Neptune rose at 11:26 AM in Aquarius very near the star Hydor (Lambda Aquarii). The 8th magnitude planet is a tiny blue-green dot and sets at 10:30 PM. Uranus rose at 1 PM in Pisces. It lies about 3 degrees from the star Mu Piscium, glows at 6th magnitude and appears a tiny 3.6 arc-seconds in size. Uranus is best observed at 7:36 PM and sets at 2:12 AM. Observers should obtain detailed star charts from astronomical websites and magazines.

The Moon turns “New” on Monday, and is not visible. Tuesday, it rises in Sagittarius as a day-old 2 percent crescent which shines at minus 0.5 magnitude about 8 degrees above the western horizon. Sky watchers with large telescopes can try for dwarf planet Pluto. At 14th magnitude, Pluto is notoriously difficult, appearing at 0.1 arc-seconds and about 3 ¼ degrees East of the Moon. Both set by 5:57 PM.

Pre-dawn skies contain only two bright planets. Mars rises in Virgo at 3:04 AM. It glows at 1.6 magnitude, is 4.5 arc-seconds in size and appears about 94 percent illuminated. The Red Planet’s distinctive color should make identification easy.

About 8 degrees below Mars, Jupiter rises at 3:48 AM in Libra, shining at minus 1.8 magnitude and appears as a large 32 arc-second object in our binoculars; the moon IO’s shadow exits the planet’s face and the moon itself finishes crossing Jupiter at 5:34 AM.

Mercury makes an appearance in the rapidly brightening dawn sky. It rises at 6:08 in the constellation Ophiuchus. It shines at 1.4 magnitude, appears about 16 percent lit, and is 9.4 arc-seconds in size. By Civil Dawn, it is about 6 degrees high in the East and about 30 degrees below Jupiter. This month, it makes its best appearance of the year and brightens. Its greatest elongation (most distant) takes place on January 1st, when it lies 23 degrees West of our Sun.

About two hours after nightfall, the constellation Cygnus appears low in the northwestern sky. Ancient peoples knew the constellation by a variety of names, all relating to birds. Cygnus comes to us from the Romans; “cygnus” is Latin for “swan.” It is named for Cycnus – the Son of Mars. Another name for Cygnus is the “Northern Cross.” Around Christmas time, the constellation sets, standing upright against the western horizon and appearing as a Christian cross. Christians see symbolism of the Cross appearing at Christmas as a reminder of the Crucifixion and Easter.

Skywatch Line for Friday, December 15 through Sunday, December 17, 2017

This is Dudley Observatory’s Skywatch Line for Friday, December 15 through Sunday, December 17, written by Sam Salem.

On Friday, Sun rises at 7:20am and sets at 4:22pm; Waning Crescent Moon rises at 4:35am and sets at 3:06pm. New Moon occurs on Monday at 1:30am.

Jupiter and Mars are reasonably high in southwest around 6am. Jupiter, at magnitude –1.7, is the most visible object in this part of the sky. Mars shines at magnitude 1.6, little fainter than nearby Spica. Jupiter is gaining altitude and gradually becoming a more interesting telescopic sight. Mars is still very tiny and won’t be worth inspecting in a scope for several more months. Venus, at magnitude –3.9, now rises only half an hour before the Sun.
Despite their prominence, the double cluster in constellation Perseus, these side-by-side clusters didn’t make into Charles Messier’s list. Hipparchus, a Greek astronomer, cataloged the object, a patch of light in Perseus, as early as 130 B.C. However, the true nature of the Double Cluster wasn’t discovered until the invention of the telescope many centuries later. In the early 19th century, William Herschel was the first to recognize the object as two separate clusters. The Double Cluster is not included in Messier’s catalog, but is included in the Caldwell catalogue of popular deep-sky objects. The eastern and western clumps of stars are catalogued, respectively, as NGC884 and NGC869. The double cluster in Perseus are described as an “awe-inspiring” and “breathtaking” sight. The Double Cluster is circumpolar, continuously above the horizon, from most northern temperate latitudes. It is in proximity to the constellation Cassiopeia. Although easy to locate in the northern sky, observing the Double Cluster in its two parts requires optical aid. To really appreciate the Double Cluster, you must be able to see both halves at the same time using an instrument capable of providing a field of view around two degrees across. Binoculars provide a wonderful view of the Double Cluster and its surroundings. Then try inspecting the component clusters individually with telescope at moderate magnification. Note the striking sprinkle of orange stars scattered among the ice-blue cluster gems.
Friday marks the birthday of the American Astronomer Charles Augustus Young. Born on December 15, 1834, Young made the first observations of the flash spectrum of the Sun, proved the gaseous nature of the Sun’s corona and discovered the reversing layer of the solar atmosphere. He was a pioneer in the study of the spectrum of the Sun and experimented in photographing solar prominences in full sunlight. At the 1870 solar eclipse in Spain, Young observed the “flash spectrum” of the Sun, where the lines of the solar spectrum all become bright for perhaps a second and a half and announced the “reversing layer.” He observed a solar flare with a spectroscope in 1872 and noted that it coincided with a magnetic storm on Earth. He concluded that magnetic conditions on the Earth respond to solar disturbances.

Skywatch Line for Wednesday, December 13th, and Thursday, December 14th, 2017

This is the Dudley Observatory Skywatch Line for Wednesday, December 13th, and Thursday, December 14th, written by Louis Suarato.

On October 11, 1983, NASA’s Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) detected the third largest near-Earth asteroid classified as “potentially hazardous”. This asteroid has been designated 3200 Phaethon, named after the son of the Greek god, Helios, who took his father’s chariot, lost control of the horses, and nearly set the Earth on fire. Of all the potentially hazardous asteroids, 3200 Phaethon has the closest approach to the Sun. Phaethon’s perihelion is .14 Astronomical Units, approximately 13 million miles. Shortly after its discovery, Harvard astronomer Fred Whipple, was able to link the three mile wide asteroid to the Geminid meteor shower. There are several theories as to the large amount of dust from 3200 Phaethon that causes the high amount of meteors when Earth crosses its path. One theory is that 3200 Phaethon collided with another space rock and created a large debris field which was pushed into Earth’s orbit by Jupiter. A competing theory is that the asteroid’s close approach to the Sun causes it to shed dust and debris. The GeminidMeteor Shower peaks Wednesday night. It is estimated to yield as many as 120 meteors per hour. The radiant of this meteor shower, of course, is the constellation Gemini. Although Gemini rises around 6 p.m., the best time to view the Geminids is between 10 p.m. and dawn when the constellation is higher in the sky. Geminid meteors will often appear yellowish, which could indicate a composition of iron and/or sodium, and travel at a medium speed of 22 miles per second, making them easy to view.

The 14% illuminated, waning crescent Moon rises at 3:37 a.m. Thursday, leaving most of the night with dark skies to view the Geminid Meteor Shower. While you’re out viewing meteors streak across the sky, take some time to view, and maybe photograph, the thin crescent Moon shining 8 degrees below Mars, and 5 degrees above Jupiter.

Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday, December 11th and 12th, 2017

This is the Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday, December 11th and 12th.

The Sun sets at 4:21 PM; night falls at 6:03. Dawn breaks at 5:34 AM and ends with sunrise at 7:07.

The twilight and night sky holds only 2 small, dim planets. Neptune, in Aquarius, shines at 8th magnitude and appears as a tiny blue-green dot one-half degree from the star Hydor. Uranus, in Pisces, is slightly bigger in our eyepieces and brighter at 5th magnitude 2¾ degrees from the star Mu Piscium. Both planets require detailed finder charts from astronomical websites or media. Neptune sets at 10:57 PM; Uranus is best observed at 8:04 PM and sets at 2:40 AM.

The brightening Dawn sky contains the constellation Virgo, which houses Mars and the Moon on both nights. Mars rises first at 3:09 AM. The Red Planet is lodged between Spica and the star Kappa Virginis. Mars shines red with 1st magnitude and appears 4.4 arc-seconds in size.

Jupiter, in Libra, follows an hour later, blazing at minus 1.7 magnitude and a large 32 arc-seconds in size near the star Zubenelgenubi, about 11½ degrees below Mars.

Tuesday’s Moon rises at 1:33 AM in Virgo, blazing with minus 8th magnitude; the 24-day-old Moon appears about 28 percent illuminated and lies about 16 degrees above Mars. Wednesday’s Moon, also in Virgo, rises at 2:35 AM, slightly dimmer and thinner and only 5 degrees above the Red Planet.

By 10 PM, Gemini is high in the southeastern sky, along with Orion and Canis Major. Sky watchers should notice enhanced meteor activity. This is the annual Geminid meteor shower. The shower peaks December 13/14 night. Meteors seem to stream from the twin stars Castor and Pollux. Under ideal conditions and a dark sky, one can see 120 meteors per hour. Light pollution reduces these numbers.

Most meteor showers are the result of comet litter. But, the Geminids are the result of a three-mile long asteroid, 3200 Phaeton – the only known asteroid generated meteor shower.

This year, Phaeton makes a historically close flyby of Earth, passing within 10.3 million Kilometers (6 ½ million miles); 3200 Phaeton orbits the Sun every 524 days. It comes closer to the Sun than any other known asteroid, less than half Mercury’s distance. Its close proximity to solar heat (1200 degrees) bakes Phaeton’s rocks, which crumble and shed, just like a comet’s ices. Phaeton is now classified as a rock comet, a rare type.

Just before closest approach, it will reach magnitude 10.7, bright enough for a 3-inch telescope. It will appear as a slow-moving satellite. Monday night at 7 PM, it appears directly below Auriga’s brightest star – Capella. Tuesday night at 7 PM Phaeton appears below the star 48 Persei. Detailed finder charts are necessary because the asteroid’s path goes through a crowded section of the Milky Way; Sky and Telescope’s website provides those charts.