New York :
Not many people have been a fan of 2020.
But when it comes to stargazing, the year could still be redeemed, as December offers some of the most impressive celestial shows that can be seen from home, no need for telescopes or expensive equipment.
Two planets that merge into one, the best meteor shower and a total solar eclipse … all you’ll need are clear skies, eye protection when needed, and a few pointers on where and when to look.
So, in chronological order, this is what the cosmos has to offer this month:
December 13-14: Geminid meteor shower, visible from around the world
You may have seen other meteors in recent months, but be prepared for “the king of meteor showers.”
“Most meteor showers occur when the Earth moves through the dusty trails left by comets,” says Patricia Skelton, an astronomer at the Royal Greenwich Observatory in the UK.
“But the meteor shower of the geminidas is different, that trail has been left behind by an asteroid called 3200 Phaeton ”, says Patricia.
So each year, as our planet traverses that abundant stream of debris, we can enjoy a generous nocturnal display: up to 150 shooting stars per hour in your highest point, from December 13 to 14.
“Meteorites enter the Earth’s atmosphere at speeds of around 35 km per second… that’s almost 130,000 km per hour!” Explains Patricia.
Expect to see yellow – and occasionally green or blue – streaks of light streaking across the night sky “as the meteors burn [volando en todas direcciones]”, Add.
The darker the conditions, the better the chances of enjoying this beautiful phenomenon, but it can even be seen in urban areas, despite light pollution.
And more good news: unlike last year (when it coincided with that public enemy of stargazing, the full moon), this time there is a new moon, which means that the Moon is hidden and therefore the sky. it’s darker.
December 14: total solar eclipse, visible in Chile and Argentina …
… But also in any other place in the world thanks to the live transmission over the internet.
Before the pandemic, many people could have flocked to Patagonia in southern Chile and Argentina to see this magnificent event.
But this is 2020 after all, and like so many other things, most of us will have to follow it online.
If you are one of the lucky few to see it in situRemember that you should never look directly at the Sun, always use protection.
For 24 magical minutes, the la new one will pass through the face of the Sun, covering it completely for “just 2 minutes and 9.6 seconds,” says astronomer Tania de Sales Marques of the Royal Greenwich Observatory.
“The Moon is 400 times smaller than the Sun”, explains Tania, but it seems bigger because it is much closer to us, and therefore it can “cover the entire disk of the Sun”.
The trajectory of the Moon in front of the Sun will throw an overwhelming curtain of darkness over the southern tip of South America, right in the middle of the day.
Paying special attention to the changes in the sky, will be the indigenous inhabitants of Patagonia, the Mapuche people.
“The Sun symbolizes ‘masculine energy’, while the Moon represents ‘feminine energy’ […], and the tension between these two forces when they intersect is a very delicate moment for us ”, explains Marcelo Huequenman, a Mapuche intercultural educator.
Traditionally, the Mapuches they have felt apprehension before the eclipses of Sol and in your language the event is called lhan Antü, which translates as “death of the Sun”, adds Marcelo.
“Solar eclipses have been recorded around the world for almost 5,000 years,” says Tania de Sales Marques.
“It is easy to understand why total solar eclipses were considered for most of history as a bad omen, since the Sun seems to be devoured and for a few moments the day turns into night ”, adds the astronomer.
De Sales indicates that “there can be up to five solar eclipses in a single year, but a total solar eclipse will only occur approximately once every 18 months, when the Moon is in the correct position to completely block sunlight.”
So if you want to plan ahead, the next full solar eclipses will be in Antarctica (December 2021), Indonesia and Australia (April 2023), the US and Canada (April 2024), southern Europe and Greenland. (August, 2026), and most of North Africa and the Middle East (August, 2027).
December 21: great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, visible from all over the world
“Jupiter and Saturn are probably the best planets to consider because they are beautiful and bright in the sky,” says Ed Bloomer, also an astronomer at the Royal Greenwich Observatory.
A great conjunction is when you have two planets superimposed, giving the impression that they have merged and now shine as one.
And this is exactly what we will see on the night of December 21: “Those ‘wandering planets’, Jupiter and Saturn will be so close in the sky that it will seem that they are almost touching ”, the astronomer points out.
At first glance, the two planets will appear to be less than 0.1º apart, but in reality, it is all a perspective trap: there are currently more than 800 million kilometers between Earth and Jupiter (although this varies depending on their positions orbitals), and almost the same between Jupiter and Saturn.
But, for a few months now, the two gas giant planets have seemed to be closing in on each other in our night sky, until they finally “meet.”
“Such conjunctions are interesting to watch, particularly the days preceding and following their closest approximation, to appreciate how they change,” says Bloomer.
And if you have a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, you could even see Jupiter’s four largest moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.
These are also known as the Moons of Galileo, because the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei observed them in 1610 with the brand new telescope that he had invented a few months earlier.
A Saturn-Jupiter conjunction only happens every 19.6 years, “but this is a bit more special than most, because the conjunction of 2020 will be the closest since the beginning of the 17th century ”.
The last time Jupiter and Saturn seemed so close was 397 years ago (in 1623; hello again, Mr. Galilei).
It’s no wonder astronomers and stargazers alike are so excited about this one: “It’s more than a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!” Bloomer highlights.
“Observing the movement of the planets gave humans an understanding of our solar system long before we were able to reach space,” he adds.
“Being witnesses to this celestial mechanics allowed to unveil the physical processes behind it, building a framework not only to understand much more of the cosmos, but it has also contributed to innumerable scientific advances and innovations here on Earth,” he clarifies.
If the skies are clear, it will be easy to see it, but you have to be quick if you want to catch it: There will only be a one-hour window before the planets sink below the horizon.
It’s best to plan ahead and spend a few nights observing their position – a beautiful pastime in itself – to find out exactly where to find them: under the southwest horizon, half an hour after sunset.
And as if it were an extra gift, December 21 is also the exact date of the solstice: the first day of astronomical summer in the southern hemisphere and winter in the north.
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