The far side of the moon taken by the Apollo 8 mission. Courtesy of NASA.
Christmas of 1968 was very special in that, for the first time in history, human astronauts orbited the Moon, took up-close photographs of its surface and transmitted television images of the stark Lunar landscape for all the people of Earth to see. New York Times called the Apollo 8 mission “the most fantastic voyage of all times.” On a darker note, the first documented case of space sickness took place during December 1968, when astronaut Frank Borman became seriously ill for several hours. December is clearly a most historic month in space history. Like December, January is also a special month for things spacial and astronomical. It was in January, 1610, that Galileo Galilee discovered craters on the Moon, moving spots on the Sun, four moons revolving around Jupiter and the innumerable stars of the Milky Way, which we now know is our home galaxy.
The Winter Solstice, which marks the shortest day (and longest night) of the year, falls on December 21st. As with equinoxes and solstices generally, celebrations and festivals often take place around the Winter Solstice. These celebrations of the “death” and “rebirth” of the Sun usually involve gatherings of close friends and relatives, elaborate feasts, singing, dancing and fire. Perhaps Christmas is, amongst other things, a Winter Solstice celebration replete with a rebirth and resurrection theme, family gatherings, caroling, and lights (fire)!
There are two significant meteor showers coming up this winter—the Geminids and the Quadrantids. The Geminids will peak on the 13th and 14th of December with up to 60 multi-colored meteors every hour. Viewing will be excellent as the Moon will be nearly new and the skies dark. With up to 40 meteors every hour, the Quadrantids peak on the 3rd and 4th of January. Look towards the constellation Boötes (directly off the handle of the Big Dipper). Best viewing for both showers is after midnight, but many meteors can be seen earlier in the evening. Why not come to one of our “Meteor Parties” to view these showers at the Custer Institute?
On January 29th, Mars will be at opposition (fully illuminated by the Sun) and closest to Earth making for fine viewing, especially through a telescope. The planet will rise in the early evening and set early in the morning. For those up in the wee hours, Saturn will again be coming into view. Uranus will be setting in the early evening hours, making the viewing time convenient, but can only be seen through a large telescope.
There will be a partial Lunar eclipse on December 31st, the night of the full Moon, and a Solar eclipse on the 15th of January, the day of the new Moon, but neither of these astronomical events will be visible from our region.