We generally save our stargazing suggestions for the summer, when it’s warmer in the northern hemisphere. But you’re tough, you can handle a little cold. And it’s worth it because there are some wonderful things you can see in the night sky this time of year.
Mars Mesmerizes at Opposition (Sky & Telescope)
The Mars Rovers (NASA)
Mission Juno (SwRI)
JunoCam : Processing (SwRI)
Mars-Moon Occultation 2022 Archives (Sky & Telescope)
Moon and Mars! Fav photos of December 7 (EarthSky)
Geminid meteor shower 2022 (In-the-sky.org)
International Space Station (NASA)
Bolide (Swinburne University)
What Is an Aurora? (NASA)
Solar Cycle Progression (NOAA / NWS)
Sunspots and Solar Flares (NASA)
The Orion Nebula is a starry nursery (EarthSky)
Star Formation (Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian)
Andromeda galaxy: All you need to know (EarthSky)
Hyades star cluster: face of the Bull (EarthSky)
Betelgeuse is Dimming . . . Why? (Sky & Telescope)
See all 5 bright planets in December 2022 (EarthSky)
Stargazing with Early Astronomer Galileo Galilei (Sky & Telescope)
Comet C/2022 L2 (ATLAS) (TheSkyLive)
Transcriptions provided by GMR Transcription Services
Fraser: AstronomyCast Episode 663, “The End-of-the-Year Events.” Welcome to AstronomyCast, your weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, is Dr. Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of CosmoQuest. Hey, Pamela, how are you doing?
Dr. Gay: I am doing well, how are you?
Fraser: Good, good. I could whine about weather, but I won’t.
Dr. Gay: Are you going to have a white Christmas?
Fraser: Probably, yeah. We’re gonna have a white December, just all the way through. Last year was bonkers. This year is shaping up to be just this side of weird, but now, I just feel like every year, the weather is just weird. That’s just the new normal.
Dr. Gay: I saw blue jays.
Fraser: You saw blue jays?
Dr. Gay: I saw blue jays. Blue jays mean winter, robins mean summer, so it’s going to be a cold one when the blue jays are here.
Fraser: Right. Now, we generally save our stargazing selections for the summer, when it’s warmer in the Northern Hemisphere, but you’re tough, you can handle a little cold, and it’s worth it because there are some wonderful things you can see in the night sky this time of year. Have we ever done this? I was sort of thinking about this. I was writing my introduction, I’m like, yeah, every year, every couple of years, our last episode before we go on hiatus, we give you a bunch of recommendations to see over the summer, and we drag out all the common things, but we don’t do one this time of year, and that’s crazy because –
Dr. Gay: Yes!
Fraser: – there’s a ton of really interesting things, especially this year –
Dr. Gay: Yes.
Fraser: – that we should highlight, and so, you know what? I think our listeners are tough. They can handle it. They can handle some cold outside weather when they just take some extra hot chocolate and just warm with layers –
Dr. Gay: Or extreme heat, if they’re in Australia.
Fraser: Right, exactly. Are we avoiding the extreme heat? It’s milder, cooler, and nicer in July in Australia as well. So, what interesting event is coming up – let’s talk about some transitory events, some things that are brand-new and fresh, and then maybe we can shift over to some stuff that you can expect to see every year around this time. So, what is interesting that’s gonna be happening this winter?
Dr. Gay: Well, right now, we have Mars at opposition, which means that Mars is rising a little bit after sunset, the nights are quite long, so Mars is rising a little bit after sunset, it’s setting a little bit before sunrise, and it’s pretty much at its highest point in the sky at the middle of the night, which, time zone dependent, may or may not be midnight where you are, but this means that that giant red dot in the sky could be Antares, could be Betelgeuse, or could be Mars.
Fraser: If you go outside right now and you live in very light-polluted skies, you will probably see two stars, Jupiter and Mars, right? Neither of them are stars, but they are the two brightest objects in the sky right now, after the Moon, and it’s a good way to know if you can see clear sky and you can see these two objects – yeah, you’re looking at Jupiter and Mars. It’s amazing.
Dr. Gay: Yes. And, it’s fun to be able to say to people, “Hey, did you know there’s a world entirely occupied by a troop of robots,” make it sound as spectacular as possible, “The Cylons have arrived,” and it’s just Mars, and you can then continue the story, pointing out at Jupiter and saying, “Hey, there’s this little mission called Juno going around Jupiter, and they post all their information online, so when we go in to warm up, we can download some data and make beautiful images using a camera that NASA purchased.”
Fraser: So, why is Mars opposition so important? What does it mean?
Dr. Gay: Mars opposition means that it is a reasonably good time to launch a spacecraft, and it also means that it’s easy to monitor it. So, if you want to do something where you want quick turnaround time between you and your favorite robot, you aim to have that thing occur during opposition, and if you are aiming to launch a mission toward the Red Planet, you aim to launch it about now.
Fraser: And this is something that is transitory – Mars opposition happens at different times of the year – and when you imagine it in your mind, just imagine you’ve got the Sun, and then you’ve got the Earth, and then you’ve got Mars all lined up.
Dr. Gay: Yes.
Fraser: That’s opposition. And so, Mars is opposite to the Sun.
Dr. Gay: And you don’t want to launch precisely at opposition. The Rosalind Franklin rover missed its launch window, which was a little bit earlier in the year, but when you see Mars at opposition, it usually means, hey, a launch window may have just gone by.
Fraser: Yeah. And typically, a fleet of spacecraft launch every Mars opposition year, but not this year. I don’t think anything’s gone to Mars this year.
Dr. Gay: No.
Fraser: Rosalind Franklin was supposed to, but, of course, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine canceled that because they were going to be providing the launching. I don’t think there’s anything left. China hasn’t got one, UAE – I don’t think anybody’s launching this year.
Dr. Gay: And not every opposition is made equal, not every launch window is made equal, so, by definition, you will end up with an opposition every single Earth year, but you don’t get an ideal launch window every single year.
Fraser: And when we’re recording this, Mars is going to be passing behind the Moon. You’re going to get an occultation, but that’s going to be happening tonight –
Dr. Gay: Yes, go look for images!
Fraser: Yeah, go look for pictures and videos from people who took it, because it happened, but I’ve got cloudy skies, so I won’t be able to see it tonight –
Dr. Gay: I have clouds.
Fraser: – but I’ll have to live vicariously through everybody who took pictures and took video of it. So, that’s Mars. What else is happening in the sky?
Dr. Gay: So, we have Mars, we have Jupiter, we have – the Geminid meteor shower is going to be peaking the week of December 12th, and all because it’s peaking on its normal December teen date, depending on which year you’re listening to this, that doesn’t mean that if you missed the peak night, you shouldn’t go looking for meteorites anyways. The radiant is coming out of the constellation of Gemini, so you’ll see the meteors appear to radiate out in straight lines away from that constellation statistically more often. You’re going to see shooting stars all over the sky, and you’re also going to see shooting satellites, except they’re on known orbits, and it’s much less random.
So, don’t be afraid to go check out Heavens Above and find out is there going to be an International Space Station pass tonight, is one of the brand-new, super bright satellite communication satellites going over tonight, is there a Starlink train tonight. All of these things are a good excuse to get your family outside and talking about something different than what the dog just did, I don’t know.
Fraser: Yeah, the Geminid meteor shower is the best – typically, it is the most reliable high-volume meteor shower every year. You typically can get upwards of a hundred meteors per hour, so, a little more than one a minute when you’re watching the sky, which is better than the Perseids. We always rave about the Perseids, but the Geminids are better than the Perseids.
Dr. Gay: Perseids get more bolides.
Fraser: Right. There are definitely some – there’s a few weird ones that can give you more bolides, but the Geminids, for raw meteor power, you can’t go wrong. It’s just for me, and probably for you, it’s cold, so you have to pace yourself when you’re outside in that kind of weather, but if you want guaranteed meteor sightings, the Geminid meteor. Unfortunately, we’re not going to have the best Moon this year for the Geminids.
Dr. Gay: No. If you go out closer to Christmas than to that December…roughly 13th peak, you’re going to have the Moon later and later in the evening and a smaller and smaller fraction of it, so that is at least working in your favor, but yeah, you want as little Moon as possible when you’re looking for shooting stars. And, aurorae – that’s something else you can pay attention to this year, or any year, for that matter.
Fraser: All right, let’s talk about auroras then, because this is maybe not going to be the best year, but we’re on our way to better and better years. Why is that?
Dr. Gay: So, we are headed towards solar maximum. In just a few years, our sun’s north and south magnetic poles are going to work on flipping themselves, and, in the process, create a maximum number of sunspots on the surface of the sun that we can observe during the day, and periodically, the loops of magnetic field lines that you end up spiraling over the surface of the planet can snap and rearrange themselves and, in the process, send a whole bunch of charged particles our direction, and when those charge particles interact with our planet’s magnetic field, they streak down in collections, and as they interact with particles in the atmosphere, we will see amazing green and red streaks, a cool additional friend called STEVE that looks like a picket fence in the sky – it’s just an absolutely beautiful thing.
It tends to be maximum in likelihood that you’re going to see an awesome show in the sky closer to the equinoxes, but winter lights are long, winter nights can be dark, and check out SpaceWeather.com to find out how to sign up for alerts and see what auroral activity is predicted for your area of the planet.
Fraser: And I go on and on about this, but I really think it’s important. For a lot of people who are listening to this, they’ve never seen an aurora in their life, and you think that you never can, that you’ve gotta go to Iceland or Alaska, but you actually don’t. As long as you live in the northern part of the United States, in the middle of Europe, Japan, in southern Australia and New Zealand, the southern part of South America, you can see an aurora. You just need to be more organized. If you live in Iceland, you walk outside to walk your dog, and you look up, and whoa, what a surprise, another aurora blowing your mind, but for the rest of us –
Dr. Gay: New Hampshire.
Fraser: Yeah, the rest of us, who live further away from the poles, you just have to be organized about this. So, what I recommend – and I recommend this every year – is find an aurora alert app, and I apologize, I can’t give you a specific recommendation because these things change all the time.
Sometimes they’re great, and then they go offline, and so, just do a search in the app store for “aurora alert app,” look for websites – just google it, you can find it – and it will tell you when the space weather strength is growing to the point that you could have auroras in your area, and you need to learn what that’s gonna be. For me, I need a certain strength – I think it’s, like, six, five, and I’ll be able to see auroras – and you also wanna find a place that gives you a nice view to the north or, if you live in the Southern Hemisphere, to the south.
So, for me, for example, I’ve got a beach that is here on Vancouver Island that I can stand on and that I can watch straight to the north. I look all the way across this giant gap in the water, and then there’s mountains to the north, and so, I’ve got a really nice view to the horizon, it’s very dark skies, the city lights are behind me.
And every time the aurora alert goes off, we pack up all our stuff, and we go down to the beach, and we wait, and sometimes you just take some pictures and you maybe can see a glow off on the horizon, and other times, the sky explodes with aurora activity, and yet, I’ve never just gone outside, looked up while I’m walking the dog, and thought, “Wow, aurora!” Each one has required preparation, but you miss 100% of the auroras that you don’t try to go see.
So, this is your year, and as we approach the solar maximum, they’re just gonna get stronger and better, and you’re gonna have better and better chances to see this. So, please, I beg you, install an aurora alert app, get to know what strong space weather events look like in your area, plan out a place that you can try to view them, and when one of these storms is building, go to your dark sky spot and see what you can see. Take a camera, do some long exposures, and I’ll bet you’ll even get them. So, good luck. I believe in you.
Dr. Gay: And this is gonna sound so lame, but my recommendation is if you have a friend with a farmhouse surrounded by pasture that has an attic, figure out how to get the north-facing window open, because then you can keep your body inside and your camera pointed outside, and that is honestly one of my favorite ways to do star trail images, is just straight out an attic window.
Fraser: Awesome. All right, we’ve talked about Mars, we’ve talked about the meteor shower, we’ve talked about auroras. What else should people be looking for this winter?
Dr. Gay: So, one of the cool things that you can do in the December/January timeframe is go outside – and this is an early-in-the-evening thing – and find the constellation Orion. You don’t need someplace that is particularly dark. We can just make it out from Cambridge, Massachusetts, couldn’t make it out from downtown Boston, so it can just be that small of a variation.
Fraser: Orion? You can see Orion anywhere, pretty much.
Dr. Gay: From downtown under skyscrapers, not necessarily.
Fraser: Right, okay. What a nightmare.
Dr. Gay: But yeah, you can see it just about everywhere, but literally not in the financial district. That is my requirement. And, underneath that belt of Orion is the sword, and you probably won’t be able to make out the Orion Nebula if you’re in a bright place, but you can point out to people “That constellation you’re looking at – that entire region of the sky is actively forming stars,” and if you’re someplace darker, you’re like, “Okay, so, that smudge in the sword – that is a star-forming area that is in the process this very moment of creating new stars.”
Fraser: I love that process. Even if you don’t know your way around the night sky, if you’ve got a pair of binoculars, you can just look around the sky with your eyes, look for anything that’s like a little hazy, blobby, fuzzy bit in the sky, and then you point your binoculars at that thing, and it’s a thing! You can see the Andromeda Galaxy, you can see the double cluster in Perseus, you can see the Orion Nebula, you can see the Triangulum Galaxy.
There’s a ton of things that you can actually see that you don’t realize that these are objects in the night sky, and then you point your binoculars at them, and you’re like, “Oh yeah, there it is!” Even with regular binoculars, you look at the Orion Nebula, you totally see where it is.
Fraser: And what I love about that area of the sky is you then jump from the Orion Nebula to the Pleiades, which looks like someone dipped a cotton ball in white paint and then splooged it onto the sky, and now you’re seeing a system that just finished forming stars that is still blowing the gas and dust out of the star-forming region, and as you bump over to Taurus, which is right next to Orion, you now have the Hyades Cluster, and that’s an open cluster that is in the process of falling apart as the rotation of our galaxy causes some stars to lag behind and others to race ahead.
So, we have, in this area of the sky that you can block with your hands, a system that’s in the process of still forming, a system that’s getting rid of its last remnant gas and dust, and that system that’s falling apart, and there’s a story there where you can explain, “This is how astronomers understand how stars form and why the Sun is alone.”
Fraser: Yeah, I love that. These are baby, baby stars, everything’s shrouded in gas and dust, and stars are just going off supernova in this, and then, here’s an older one where the stars have mostly blown off the surrounding gas, and they’re starting to clear out their environment, and then, with Taurus, they’ve cleared out their environment, and now they’re drifting away from each other and will be lost in the chaos of the Milky Way.
Dr. Gay: And then, you can always just point out that someday, hopefully in the next 100,000 years or so, when humans are still hopefully around, Orion the Hunter will get a bloody red shoulder when Betelgeuse decides to explode.
Fraser: Right, right. And, even Betelgeuse – I think right now, it’s brighter than usual, the time that we’re recording this –
Dr. Gay: Yes.
Fraser: – but the variations on Betelgeuse are actually fairly visible, and you can use the other bright stars in Orion to give you a sense of whether it is brighter or dimmer than these other stars. So, back when Betelgeuse dimmed several years ago, it was clearly obvious. You walked outside, and you were like, “Weird, Betelgeuse is dim.”
And so, you can do this. You can actually just visually compare them and go, “Okay, Betelgeuse is a little brighter than Rigel or a little less bright than Rigel,” and just compare them, and – just walk outside and compare the stars, and after a while, you’ll build up a sense – you’re actually watching the variations on Betelgeuse, and those variations are coming from enormous sunspots that can cover a huge portion of the surface of the star, of burps of gas and dust that are being blobbed out into space and blocking our view to the star. You can make these observations for yourself. It’s amazing.
Dr. Gay: And this is a system where, when you go back inside to warm up again, we have actually imaged – in kind of low resolution, but we have imaged the surface of Betelgeuse with interferometers here on the surface of our planet, so this is our one chance to really make out what another star looks like in a similar way to how we look at how our own star, the Sun, looks like.
Fraser: Now, you mentioned briefly that Mars is in the sky, and I talked about how Jupiter is in the sky, but actually, all the planets are in the sky right now.
Dr. Gay: It’s true. Not all of them are easy to see.
Fraser: Right, especially if you don’t have a nice view to the horizon, but over December 2022, just in case you’re listening to this into the far, far future, it’s possible to see all of the visible planets at various times in the sky. So, you can see Mercury close to the horizon – I don’t know whether it’s after sunset or before sunrise –
Dr. Gay: It switches. Depending on when you listen, it will be different.
Fraser: It switches, yeah. You can see Venus, you can see Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, and they’re all visible in the sky right now.
Dr. Gay: And two super cool things to note is Venus has phases the same way the Moon has phases, and with a modest-sized telescope, you can start to see, oh, that’s a crescent Venus, that is a waxing gibbous Venus. It has all these phases. And then, the other thing that it’s fun to surprise people with, but you have to plan ahead because you’re not gonna randomly figure this out – you can see Neptune with a small telescope. Galileo saw Neptune, he just didn’t know he saw Neptune. It was in the field of view of Jupiter, and he sketched it out.
Fraser: That’s cool.
Dr. Gay: Yeah. You can see Uranus with a modest telescope.
Fraser: That’s amazing. So, were there any other events that you think people should be aware of this winter?
Dr. Gay: Those are the big ones that are easy to explain. There is a comet that has been spotted that is coming in, it’s slowly approaching roughly the northern celestial pole, Polaris, in the sky, it’s going to dive through our solar system, and it already has a little tiny tail and a bit of a coma, and so, there are hints that we’re going to have a good comet this year, hopefully.
Fraser: Perfect. Let’s hope so. This is it – 2023, this is it. This is a portent of a good year for astronomy. All right, thanks, Pam.
Dr. Gay: Thank you so much, Fraser, and thank you so much to all of our patrons out there. Without you, we would not have editors to go back and fix it when I inadvertently rename planets, and we otherwise just have barking dogs and things like that. Because of you, we are able to pay fair wages and provide insurance, where needed, to our staff.
And this week, I would like to thank Benjamin Mueller, Scott Briggs, Don Mundis, Dean McDaniel, Micheal Regan, Omar Del Rivero, Matt Rucker, Janelle, Michelle Cullen, J. Alex Anderson, schercm, Peter, Benjamin Carryer, Frode Tennebaum¸, Moose and Deer, Anitusar, Bruce Amazeen, Jim McGihon, Abraham Cottrill, Philip Grand, Father Prax, Mark Steven Rasnake, Camy Raissian, Dustin Ruoff, Brent Kreinop, Dwight Illk, Gfour184, Cemanski, Alex Raine, Andrew Stephenson, Gabriel Gauffin, James Rodger, Paul Hayden, Glenn McDavid, John Aliseth, Benjamin Davies, Sean Martz, The Air Major, Sam Brooks and his Mom, Karthik Venkatraman, The Lonely Sand Person, The Mysterious Mark, Bart Flaherty, Dean, Naila, Brian Kilby, Nate Detwiler, Arcticfox, John Drake, Lew Zealand, Corinne Dmitruk, Ganesh Swaminathan, Bob Zatzke, Ron Thorrsen, Jordan Turner, Leigh Harborne, Jason Kardokus, Robert Hundl, Kim Barron, Frank Stuart, planetar, Steven Coffey, Ruben McCarthy, Arthur Latz-Hall, Paul Esposito, Timelord Iroh, Daniel Donaldson, Ian Abdilla, and Geoff MacDonald. Thank you all so much. You are the people that make what we do possible.
Fraser: Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next week.
Dr. Gay: Bye-bye.