Meteor Showers, a Supermoon, and the Solstice: A Guide to the December Night Sky

Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

This has been a fantastic year for sky watching. Eclipses in particular had their day in the Sun, with celestial objects blotting each other out as if in competition. There was a penumbral lunar eclipse and an annular solar eclipse in February, and then in August, a partial lunar eclipse was followed up by a mind-blowing total solar eclipse. If you missed any or all of those events, don't lose heart: they will happen again and again and again, in your lifetime and beyond. Celestial mechanics guarantee it. The year isn't over yet, though, and December has a few wonderful events up its sleeve. Here are four things you should be on the lookout for in the skies above.

DECEMBER 3: THE ONLY SUPERMOON OF 2017

I know, supermoons are so 2016. There were six that year, if you don't recall. (I do, because I had to think of new things to write about every single one of them.) This year has been a bit less active in terms of super lunar events, with a total of zero must-see giant moons for your viewing pleasure. That changes on December 3 with the first and only supermoon of the year, and it has a great name at that: the Full Cold Supermoon. The "cold" part of the name, according to the Old Farmers Almanac, derives from Native American tradition. (They weren't being creative here; it's just really cold in December.) The "super" part is because the Moon will be at perigee—that is, the closest to Earth it's going to get in its orbit. The moon's orbit is not a perfect circle, meaning it sometimes appears larger in the sky than others.

Expect a moon that's about 14 percent larger than when it is at apogee (farthest from Earth), though, unless you are an obsessive moonwatcher, the larger size will be nearly imperceptible. My advice is to point at the moon when your friends are around and say something like, “Hey, check that out. I think that's a supermoon! You might not notice a difference, but I sure do. Compared to the moon at apogee, it's huge! Why, it's got to be 14 percent larger, at least. Wow!” Then change the subject quickly, because nobody likes a know-it-all.

DECEMBER 13–14: MORE THAN 100 METEORS PER HOUR

The Geminid meteor shower is considered the best meteor shower of the year, and it peaks after midnight between December 13 and 14. If you are in an area of low (or no) light pollution, and if you give your eyes an hour to adjust to total darkness, and if the weather is good (a lot of "ifs," but worth it if you can arrange things), you can expect to see more than 100 meteors per hour. Geminid meteors are a result of the Earth colliding into the debris field of the asteroid Phaethon, an unusual "rock comet" that leaves behind dust- and sand-sized particles as it circles the Sun. A speck of dust might not seem like much, but when the atmosphere of a 13,170,000,000,000,000,000,000,000-pound planet plows into it at tens of thousands of miles per hour, it is vaporized in a beautiful streak of light.

As if that isn't cool enough, on December 16, Phaethon itself will make its closest approach to Earth in 43 years! Yes, the Minor Planet Center officially considers Phaethon to be a "potentially hazardous object," but before you dust off your Y2K prepper supplies, know that the asteroid will be 27 times farther away than the Moon generally is from the Earth. Sadly, it is unlikely to affect the meteor shower in any measurable way.

DECEMBER 21: THE WINTER SOLSTICE

December 21 will play host to the longest night of the year. Why? Because the Earth's axis is tilted by about 23.5 degrees, and as we orbit the Sun, different latitudes are in direct sunlight. Presently, the southern hemisphere is “closer” to the Sun than the northern. On the 21st, the Tropic of Capricorn (latitude -23.5 degrees) will be in the overhead sun and will receive 13 hours, 27 minutes of daylight. The higher in latitude you go from the Tropic of Capricorn, the less daylight that part of the Earth will receive. The equator will get 12 hours of sunlight. The North Pole will get zero seconds of daylight. The Tropic of Cancer will get about 10.5 hours.

We call this the Winter Solstice, and it's when you'll find some of the best parties of the year. That much night, after all, and anything can happen. Starting on the 22nd, the days will begin to get longer in the northern hemisphere, with spring soon to follow.

DECEMBER 22: THE URSID METEOR SHOWER

Just before sunrise on the morning of December 22, as you're stumbling home from that killer Winter Solstice party, look up. Well, first find a spot with low light pollution and give your eyes time to adjust, and then look up. You will be treated to the annual Ursid meteor shower, here to ring out 2017—and not a minute too soon.

The Ursids are no Geminids; at best you'll only catch 10 meteors an hour, but because the Moon will be but a sliver, the natural skies should be nice and dark. Weather not cooperating? Don't worry. You should be able to catch an Ursid or two through December 25. (Note that on the night of the 24th, what you suspect is an Ursid might be a sleigh carrying cargo and an elderly, bearded man. A distinct red hue will help you distinguish the two. One is a shooting star. The other is Rudolph's nose.)

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6 Amazing Facts About Sally Ride

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are six things you might not know about the groundbreaking astronaut, who was born on May 26, 1951.

1. Sally Ride proved there is such thing as a stupid question.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. Had she taken Billie Jean King's advice, Sally Ride might have been a professional tennis player.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. Home economics was not Sally Ride's best subject.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. Sally Ride had a strong tie to the Challenger.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. Sally Ride had no interest in cashing in on her worldwide fame.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

6. Sally Ride was the first openly LGBTQ astronaut.

Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, following a long (and very private) battle with pancreatic cancer. While Ride's brief marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley was widely known to the public (they were married from 1982 to 1987), it wasn't until her death that Ride's longtime relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy—a childhood friend and science writer—was made public. Which meant that even in death, Ride was still changing the world, as she is the world's first openly LGBTQ astronaut.