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The Best Meteor Shower of the Year

December 2012 Geminid and Clouds John ChumackJupiter has been drawing the eye to the east for those outside in the evenings. The giant planet is shining brightly as it rises in the constellation Taurus with the compact Pleiades cluster to its upper right.

Jupiter reaches opposition in December, which is the best time for observing a planet because it rises at sunset and sets at sunrise, staying visible all night. Binoculars will show the planet’s four largest moons as they change positions each night, and a telescope will reveal the stripes on Jupiter's cloud tops and perhaps the Great Red Spot. Jupiter gives us a little gift on Christmas when it has its closest approach with the moon for the month, lying one full-moon-width away from a 95%-lit gibbous moon. The full moon occurs a couple days later, at 2:21 a.m. PST on December 28.

Mars is also in the evening sky but making much less of a splash on the opposite horizon. Look southwest after sunset to catch the ruddy orb as it hovers in twilight. Try to spot Mars on December 14 just after sunset when the planet is to the upper left of a 4%-lit newborn crescent moon.

For more planetary action, you’ll have to rise before the sun, but it will be worth your while. Three planets are lining up in the early dawn in the southeast. On December 1, Venus shines like a searchlight with Saturn just above and Mercury below. Over the next week the planets fan out a bit, and on December 9 they make a line with the moon above. On December 10 the moon drops to below Saturn, and on December 11 the moon floats just to the lower right of Venus. Saturn grows ever more distant over December and the star Antares interjects itself into Venus and Mercury’s pairing.

Meteor showers are at their best when they occur around the time of new moon, because there is no extra glow in the night sky to wash out fainter "shooting stars." December 13 brings both new moon and the peak of the Geminid meteor shower this year, providing perfect conditions for an active shower. While Geminids can occur between December 6 and 19, they will be at their peak after midnight on December 13, with up to 60 meteors an hour possible. The Geminids can appear multicolored as they flame out in our atmosphere.

The winter solstice for the northern hemisphere occurs on December 21 at 3:12 a.m. PST. Whenever I hear that date this year, these lyrics from R.E.M. run through my head: "It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine." Completely unfounded and hysterical claims that December 21, 2012, will be the last day of life on Earth have been circulating through shady corners of the Internet and picked up by the media. There is no truth to the assertions that an alignment with the Milky Way will trigger our doom or that a rogue planet will crash into Earth that day. (Although the nearest rogue planet to Earth has just been discovered! But it still lies 100 light-years away, and considering the closest star to the sun is about 4 light-years away, the rogue planet is ridiculously far from us and posing no threat whatsoever.) So relax, enjoy your holidays, and have a Happy New Year!

Photo: A bright Geminid meteor shines through the clouds. Credit: John Chumack.

HS_KellyWhittKelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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