December Sky Shows

by Bill Monson

Like many Illinoisans, I spent a lot of my clays and nights studying the sky. Sunrises, sunsets, cloud formations, lightning, tornadoes, rainbows, sundogs, stars, meteor showers, eclipses, moon rings, Aurora Borealis. Growing up, I learned all kinds of astronomy and meteorology just by listening to my elders talk and watching for myself.

Even with gas stations and the Steak 'n Shake a block away on Main, it was still dark enough to the north in my backyard on Blaine Avenue for me to see the Dippers and Cassiopeia do their circle dance around the pole star. Any season of the year, I was out behind the garage, looking for a sky show.

These days, a lot of people are so comfort-mInded, they think summer Is the only time for star gazing.


Cool, crisp weather is better -- and two of the best meteor showers arrive in cold weather. This month has one of them -- and a minor shower as well.

The better of the two is the Geminid shower, which is at maximum on December 13th with an average of 65 meteors an hour. The best shower of the year comes next January 4th -- the Quadrantid, with an average of 80 an hour.

The best warm weather shower, of course, is the Perseid in August wIth 75. Naturally, it gets the most attention.

(These figures come from The Old Farmer's Almanac,)

Most of the rest (there are a dozen yearly) average from 5 to 25 per hour. This month's second shower -- the Ursid -- is at maximum on December 22nd. It averages only a dozen meteors an hour, which is slim pickings when you've lost all feeling in your toes.

Two other excellent sky features of the month are the planets Jupiter and Saturn, still bright though not as bright as in November. They're well worth a view through a telescope for a few minutes on a frosty night. On December 11, Venus -- low in the sky at nightfall -- will be next to Neptune. On Christmas Eve, it's next to Uranus.

To make Christmas especially exciting, North America gets a partial eclipse of the sun on December 25th. In the Midwest, it begins about 9:30am CST and ends about noon. Be sure to watch it after opening your presents -- but take the usual precautions for viewing any solar eclipse: smoked glass, welding goggles, or simply reflect the image of the sun on the ground or a shaded wall with a mirror. Never look at the sun with your naked eyes.

So, if you're seeking something different in the holiday season, turn off the TV and go outside to see these sky treats that December 2000 has scheduled for you. (And there's always the chance of an unscheduled Northern Lights display, too.)

Don't forget to circle January 4th on your new calendars, too, so you can start the new century and millennium with a good meteor show. (Yes, I'm one of those folks who think centuries last 100 years and millennia 1000 and so end in 00 -- not 99!)

Here's hoping for clear, not too cold nights, for observation.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online December 6, 2000

Back to The Zephyr