TWS feature dec 15 Kurt-Bauschardt-solstice-lunar-eclipse-2010-1536×871
Kurt Bauschardt took this lunar eclipse photograph in December 2010. (flickr)
This Week’s Sky: December 15 to 22

Winter Solstice, meteors and a passerby comet highlight the week

Canada’s days have been getting shorter, and the cold weather and snow is settling in over most of the country. Along with winter comes hot chocolate, warm socks — and long nights for viewing the dark skies.

The longest night of the year is coming up this week. The exact moment of the Northern Hemisphere’s Winter Solstice is Sunday, December 22 4:19 UTC (which translates to 12:49 a.m. on the East Coast in NST to Saturday, December 21 at 8:19 p.m. on the West Coast in PST).

The ancient Romans celebrated the yearly astronomical event with Saturnalia, a raucous festival held in honour of the god Saturn. His namesake planet will be visible in the early evening skies this week. After Saturn’s conjunction with Venus December 10, the two will be moving further apart as this week progresses. Look for the separating pair in the southwest skies in Sagittarius just after sunset local time.

C/2017 T2 (PanSTARRS)

With a good pair of binoculars or a telescope, you should be able to get a glimpse of the comet C/2017 T2 (PanSTARRS) this week. Currently visible in Perseus, The Sky Live states the comet will be at its closest to Earth on Sunday, December 29 this year.

If you missed the peak of the Geminids Meteor Shower due to the bright moon or cloudy weather, the tail end is visible Monday, December 16 to Tuesday, December 17.

Geminids

The shower is caused by 3200 Phaethon, an asteroid or a possible “rock comet,” according to NASA. Discovered on Oct., 11 1983 by the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, Phaethon is named after the fellow in Greek mythology who drove his divine dad’s chariot a wee bit too close to the sun.

Considered to be one of the best and most reliable annual meteor showers, the Geminids first began appearing in the mid-1800s. They are best viewed during the night and predawn hours.

Ursids

Not getting enough meteor action with the Geminids? Coming from the Tuttle/8P Comet, the minor Ursids Meteor Shower begins Tuesday, December 17. Light your Channukah candles and get set for the peak Sunday, December 22 to Monday, December 23, which provides generally about 10 or so meteors per hour under ideal viewing conditions. If you’re lucky, NASA notes this shower can have occasional and unpredictable outbursts up to about 50 per hour.

This Week’s Sky has been written by Allendria Brunjes, using events and dates provided by Chris Vaughan through Astronomy Skylights. Vaughan is a science writer, geophysicist, astronomer, planetary scientist and an “outreach RASCal.” You can follow him on Twitter at @astrogeoguy