Local stargazers will finish the year on a high with a galactic week of shooting stars and planetary alignment lighting up the night sky through the week.
The nightsky action kicked off early this morning with the Geminid meteor shower as Earth passed through the tail of an asteroid.
Coinciding with the new moon, the showers should be particularly spectacular if you manage to get a cloud free evening sky.
The Geminids are created by debris from an asteroid-like object known as 3200 Phaethon, creating a more rocky debris rather than dusty, tending to be brighter and to travel further across the sky in long trails, with potentially a sparkler effect as they near the end of their descent into the atmosphere.
You can see the Geminids from anywhere in Australia, as long as they are not washed out by the weather. The meteors will radiate from a point in the constellation of Gemini above the northern horizon.
The further north you live the better, as the radiant rises earlier and will be higher in the sky at its peak.
For us, anywhere between 9-9.30 pm is a good time for the radiant to start rising above the horizon, and if you have a clear sky, there is the possibility that you may witness what are known as ‘Earth-grazing’ meteors, that trail from one horizon to the other.
If you wait until at least midnight, you have a better chance of seeing more meteors, with the optimal number of trails expected from 2:00 am through to sunrise, with anywhere up to 40 meteors or shooting stars per hour for our location tomorrow morning.
To get the best view /
Hint / download one of the main stargazing apps to help you locate accurately.
If you are looking north, it is relatively easy to see Castor and Pollux, the two bright stars of Gemini.
The radiant of the Geminids is just below Castor. Off to one side you will see Orion and Taurus.
The meteors will appear from a point just below Castor and Pollux, above the northern horizon.
Scan a broad section of the sky rather than focussing on the one point-give your eyes 10-15 minutes to adjust to the night sky too.
Bear in mind, that if the sky is cloudy in the north, you may still be in luck for stargazing, as the showers tend to streak almost all the way across the sky. The darker the sky the better, so get away from suburban lights where you can.
The Jupiter-Saturn kiss
Jupiter and Saturn’s take centre-stage starting on Thursday in a once-in-a-20-year event called the “great conjunction”.
Saturn has been mooching along after Jupiter across the night sky for the past few months.
The two star-crossed lover planets have been drawing closer and closer over the last couple of weeks, and will officially “kiss” (in a “grand conjunction”) above the western horizon an hour after sunset on December 21. This only happens about once every 20 years, but this year is especially rare, as there is only about a tenth of a degree separating the two planets— the closest they will have appeared in the sky to each other in nearly 400 years-since 1623. The two planets won’t appear this close to each other again until 2080.
Expect a pretty show in a few days, on December 17, when the close planets and the crescent Moon turn on a show, visible both to the naked eye, and through binoculars and telescopes.
By December 21, Jupiter and Saturn will appear in the evening twilight about half an hour after sunset, but they will only be visible for an hour before disappearing below the western horizon.
What to look for /
Assuming the night sky is clear, you’ll be able to see the planets even in light polluted areas without any equipment.
Would-be astronomers should look at the western skies about 8.30pm onwards. With your naked eye look for two small dots — the smaller Saturn appearing to mooch along after larger and brighter Jupiter — towards the western horizon.
On December 21 the two planets come so close in a “kiss’ that you may not be able to see the gap between them.
With binoculars or a telescope you’ll be able to catch details such as Jupiter’s four largest moons, or the two dark bands either side of Jupiter’s equator, and even the great red spot on Jupiter.
Image Credit / NASA/George Varros – http://www.universetoday.com/89430/the-draconid-meteor-shower-a-storm-is-coming/