OK, so the close pairing of the moon and the planet Venus described in last week’s blog didn’t pan out so well – Oakland’s skies were cloudy throughout the event. But, that’s the way it goes, sometimes.
Mother Nature has a chance to redeem herself, however, on the nights of Sunday December 13 and Monday December 14, when the prolific Geminid meteor shower reaches peak performance. The crescent moon, back in the evening sky, will set shortly after sunset on both nights, leaving the sky free of moonlight, which would otherwise interfere with the viewing of faint meteors.
A bright meteor slips between the constellations Aquarius and Capricorn (Photo: Google Images).
The meteors in this month’s Geminid shower appear to emanate from a point in the constellation Gemini, which rises in the east at sunset. The best time to watch for these meteors is when the shower radiant (the point in the sky where all the shower-related meteors seem to come from) is high in the sky. Conditions permitting, when the radiant is high, you may see a meteor per minute. Under ideal conditions (e.g., well away from city lights, with clear weather and an unobstructed view of the sky), you might even see counts approaching two meteors per minute.
‘X’ marks the spot – or in this instance, a meteor shower’s radiant. Notice how a line traced back from each meteor ‘tail’ arrives at the shower radiant. The photo is a time-lapse, used to identify the radiant. Usually, you will see one meteor at a time. Meteor viewing is rewarding, but does require some patience. (Photo: Google Images).
Those of us observing between 10pm and 3am, when Gemini is high overhead, will likely see more meteors (60+ meteors per hour, under favorable conditions) than those who observed earlier in the evening or plan to do so just before dawn (10-30 meteors per hour). Lastly, a word of caution — Don’t be discouraged if you go outside at, say, 11pm and it’s not ‘raining meteors.’ The above figures are merely estimates — meteor showers don’t always behave in highly predictable ways.
The Sky and Telescope article attached to this link will provide helpful details about how to observe this particular meteor shower: http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/observing-news/geminid-meteors-in-2015-120820154/
It’s important that you turn off as many lights as you can to observe this meteor shower under dark skies. Also, observing from a locale that has an unimpeded view of the sky is highly preferable to one that is obstructed by buildings and trees.
The Geminid meteors can all be traced back to the shower radiant, but they can be seen in many parts of the sky. Those seen close to the radiant tend to be shorter and quicker, but more frequent. Shower meteors seen in more distant parts of the sky will be less frequently observed, but they will be longer and brighter than the ‘radiant-huggers.’ Also, be aware that there will occasionally be ‘sporadic meteors’ that are not part of the Geminid shower and, hence, won’t be traced back to the shower radiant.
The preliminary weather forecast for Oakland calls for questionable viewing on Sunday night, but clear skies the following night. Be sure to check the forecast again over the weekend since, as you know, long-range weather forecasts can be fickle and are subject to change.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Oakland’s overnight low temperatures are expected to be close to 40 degrees on both nights, so you should plan to dress warmly.
There’s something truly awe-inspiring about seeing a single meteor glide across the starry background in utter silence. If you see a meteor, chances are good that you’ll want to keep watching for the next one… and the next one. So, please keep any unnecessary lights off on Sunday and Monday night, so you and your neighbors can enjoy these shooting stars under the darkest conditions – weather permitting, of course.
Keeping Oakland Beautiful is everybody’s business.
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