By Kenneth S Rumstay
Two celestial events of note will grace Valdosta’s skies in December!
The Geminid meteor shower will peak on the night of December 13–14. This annual shower is caused by 3200 Phaethon, an asteroid whose highly eccentric orbit carries it closer to the Sun (21 million miles) than any other named celestial body. The Geminids and the Quadrantids (visible in early January) are the only major meteor showers not originating from a comet.
While the shower peaks on Sunday night, meteors should be visible for a couple of nights before and after. To see them, face towards the east after 10:00 pm. With no Moon to brighten the sky, this year’s Geminid shower should be a good one!
Turning towards the southwest, just after sunset, that brilliant “star” in the sky is actually the giant planet Jupiter. Just above it (and slightly to the left) is Saturn. Saturn is nearly as large as Jupiter but, being almost twice as far away, appears much fainter. During the next ten days the two planets will approach one another, reaching conjunction on the 21st. At that time the two will be only 1/10th of a degree apart and may (depending on your eyesight) appear as a single star!
Long-time patrons of the VSU Planetarium may recall that, in our annual Star of Bethlehem show, a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the year 7 BCE was proposed as a possible source for the legend of the Christmas Star. Alas, our Planetarium and Observatory remain closed during the current pandemic.
Jupiter and Saturn have not appeared this close together in our sky since July 1623, and won’t approach this close again until March 2080. So enjoy this year’s Christmas Star, and have a wonderful holiday season!