Stargazing: Look out for Geminids

It is already the last month of the calendar year, the month in which the skies start to get lighter as the sun starts its journey north in the sky. We are halfway through the dark sky season in Shetland with the winter solstice at 5.47pm on 21st December.

Full moon was on the 2nd, the new moon is on the 16th and the second full moon is on the 31st. Yes, this is a month of two full moons, the second being popularly known as a Blue Moon. As well as being a Blue Moon, that second full moon of the month will have a partial eclipse. So looking to the east on the 31st between 6.50pm and 7.58pm the area around four o’clock on the moon’s face will be eclipsed.


The moon will be out of the way from Sunday until the 20th.

Jupiter is in the south-west and besides being a magnificent object itself to look at, it acts as a pointer to the planet Neptune. Uranus is further east and a good sky atlas or planet­arium program will help you find it.


The moon will be out of the way from the 10th to the 25th.

The magnificent constellation of Orion is in the south. Go and explore it with your eyes and binoculars and have a look at the fuzzy patch at the end of Orion’s sword – that’s the great nebula that is a stellar nursery. Stars are being born there.


The moon will be out of the way from the 13th to the 27th.

The early hours of the morning brings the constellation Leo due south. To the east of the lion is the planet Saturn and to the west the planet Mars. You should be able to see the difference in colour – Mars is the red planet – as well as the differences in brightness.

Unfortunately the sky was not very clear last month for the Leonid meteor shower. The shower did pick up as predicted but because we were not facing towards the dust stream at the time there were few meteors to be seen in the gaps in the clouds. Hopefully it will be clear for this month’s Geminids as they are the year’s most constant meteor shower.

The Geminids peak on the morning of the 14th with up to 20 meteors an hour but activity can be seen from the 7th to the 16th at a rate of one meteor per hour.

Unlike last year, this year there is no moon to obscure the view. And if you want the chance to meteor watch with others then Shetland Astrono­mical Society has an evening from 7pm at the Asta Golf Course club­house on the night of the 13th.

Shetland Astronomical Society held the second of its Moonwatch talks at the museum recently by John Baruch, focusing on forthcoming space tourism.

The poor doctor had to battle against a slow computer that was displaying his slides but managed to present a credible view of what the future might bring for tourism to the moon. Along the way he slipped in lots of facts about the moon-earth system and tides and a little bit of physics.

Memorably, he danced about the room while moving one hand around the other to demonstrate in three dimensions the orbits of the earth and moon. Again having a profes­sional astronomer in the room meant that the audience was able to ask all manner of questions to sate its appetite for knowledge.

Earlier Dr Baruch told me that the Bradford Robotic Telescope project that he heads up is coming to an agreement to allow Shetland schools remote access on the telescopes based in Tenerife. So even if the sky is cloudy in Shetland you should be able to take astrophotos.

It being dark for nearly 18 hours each night in December gives plenty of time if the clouds clear to look at the sky. Spend time just getting to know the constellations and then use binoculars to search out the fuzz-balls that are the Messier objects – so named because Charles Messier catalogued them in the late 18th century as objects that may be confused with a comet.

If you are photographically minded then just put your camera on a tripod and take the longest expo­sure you can, especially on the night of the Geminids – you may catch one.

Have a wonderful Christmas, hopefully with clear skies.

Chris Brown


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