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.)

The Leonid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend—Here's the Best Way to Watch It

mdesigner125/iStock via Getty Images
mdesigner125/iStock via Getty Images

We're nearing the end of 2019, but there are still a few astronomical events to catch before the year is s out. This Sunday—November 17—the Leonid meteor shower is expected to peak. Here's everything you need to know before viewing the spectacle.

What is the Leonid meteor shower?

Like all meteor showers, the Leonids are caused by meteoroids from outer space burning up on their descent toward Earth. These particular shooting stars come from the rocky tail of Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle. Each November, debris from the comet pummels the Earth's atmosphere, causing meteors to light up the sky at rates that can exceed 1000 per hour.

The Leonids won't reach that frequency this year. According to EarthSky, the meteors would peak at a rate of around 10 to 15 per hour in a dark, moonless sky. But because the moon will be bright this weekend, sky-gazers will likely see less of them, with only the brightest shooting stars shining through.

How to See the Leonids

For your best chance of spotting the Leonids, look up the night of Sunday, November 17 and early in the morning of Monday, November 18. The shower reaches its peak after midnight. The moon will be in its waning gibbous phase at that time, so even with clear skies, viewing conditions won't be ideal. But there are ways to increase your chances of seeing as many meteors as possible. Try finding a large object to stand under—such as a tree or building—that will block your view of the moon. If you don't see anything right away, be patient: The more time you give your eyes to adjust to the darkness, the more likely you are to spot a shooting star.

What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

NASA
NASA

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding. For the remainder of 2019, that means October 31-November 20. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?

The History of "Mercury in Retrograde"

Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.

What is Mercury in Retrograde?

Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This piece originally ran in 2018.

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