See a meteor shower and a rare pairing of planets in December

Astronomer, Neil Norman Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Astronomer, Neil Norman Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

What can you see in the skies during December? Astronomer Neil Norman, from Hadleigh, tells us what to look out for, including a meteor shower and a pairing of planets.

We conclude this most testing of years with two astronomical spectacles that, given clear skies, will amaze the amateur astronomer. 

First is the annual Geminids. This meteor shower peaks this month on the night/morning of December 13-14. This shower is very strong with over 100 meteors per hour visible, and, with a new moon coinciding on this date, even the fainter meteors will be seen.

The meteors appear to come from a point above the bright star Castor in the constellation of Gemini, which is placed high up in the southern sky at midnight. 

Appearing to move slowly across the sky, the meteors are rather spectacular to see and photograph. 

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Next up is the winter solstice on December 21. The solstice is, of course, nothing particularly special, but just means that this is the date of the shortest day of the year and that it is the peak date that the northern hemisphere is turned away from the sun.

 But this solstice also coincides with a little bit of history, for, in the south-eastern sky shortly after sunset on this date the two planets, Jupiter and Saturn will visually appear to be almost one “star”.

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This is called a Great Conjunction and these only occur once in every 20 years, due to the different orbital speeds of the two planets.

The remarkable thing about this event, though, is that it is the closest they have visually appeared from Earth since 1623. A pairing like this year’s will not occur again until the year 2080.

And, as a piece of festive nostalgia,  this type of conjunction is believed to have been the  reason behind the  Star of Bethlehem.

A pair of binoculars will show both planets beautifully placed in the same field of view and the four principal moons of Jupiter also.

This really is a sight not to be missed and photographed....clear skies permitting, of course.

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