Eye on the Sky: Winter Solstice, a Total Eclipse of your Fun?

Hello once again fellow astrophiles! Well, winter is finally here, and while it might bring icy cold temperatures, it’s also a great time to do some stargazing due to the fact that the sky is less hazy in winter, and therefore much more clear. Since this is a double issue of the paper, I’ll be talking about what’s going on in the sky in both December and January.

The first event of note is the total solar eclipse of December 4,

The first event of note is the total solar eclipse of December 4, but unless you’re prepared to don a few parkas and get a slow boat ticket to Antarctica, you’re out of luck, because that’s the only place you’ll be able to see it. Now, I can tell you right now that a total eclipse of the sun in the most fantastic astronomical event you can ever hope to see. I was lucky enough to see the one in 2017, but I think I’ll skip this one and opt instead to wait for the more congenial one that occurs in the United Sates on April 8, 2024.

There are a couple of meteor showers of note that are coming up…

The two full moons of December and January are called the Cold Moon and the Wolf Moon respectively. They occur on December 19 and January 17. The reason for the first one’s name is obvious, while the second one was named so by Native Americans because January was the time when packs of hungry wolves prowled around their campsites howling at the Moon. Now, since we don’t have packs of hungry wolves wandering around the woods of West Virginia, I don’t see any reason why you can’t be out there gawking up at the sky this winter, since a tough Mountaineer can surely handle a little cold.

There are a couple of meteor showers of note that are coming up, namely the Geminids, which peak on the night of December 13, and the Quadrantids, which peak on the night of January 3. You won’t want to miss the Geminids, as this shower is often considered to be the most spectacular one of all. You can expect to see up to 120 bright, colorful shooting stars per hour, although there will be a waxing gibbous moon in the sky at the same time, which will unfortunately outshine some of the fainter meteors. The Geminids are unusual in that they are not produced by debris from a comet like most meteor showers, but instead debris from an asteroid, which is named 3200 Phaethon. The meteors will appear to radiate from the constellation Gemini, but can appear anywhere in the sky, so if you have no idea where Gemini is, that’s okay. Just look up and around until you see a shooting star.

The planet Mercury reaches greatest eastern elongation on the evening of January 7

The Quadrantids offer up another fine show, with up to 40 shooting stars per hour. The skies will be darker for this one, so the viewing should be excellent. The meteors will appear to radiate from the constellation Bootes, but as before can appear anywhere in the sky. Also, one thing to keep in mind with meteor showers is that the peak dates given are just that – the dates they peak on. You can always go outside on nights a couple of days on either side of the peak and probably see at least a few meteors.

The planet Mercury reaches greatest eastern elongation on the evening of January 7. This is just a fancy way of saying it will be at its highest point above the horizon on that evening. This makes it a fine time to try to see it. Look for it low in the western sky just after sunset.

The winter solstice occurs when the North Pole’s tilt away from the sun is at its greatest, which is what makes it so flippin’ cold out there.

Last but not least we come to the winter solstice, which occurs on Tuesday, December 21 at 10:59 am here in West Virginia. This is indeed the shortest day of the year but, contrary to what many people think, it is not the day of earliest nightfall. That occurs in the Lewisburg area on Monday, December 6, when the sun sets at 5:04:06 pm. So, you see, you can look forward to longer evenings sooner than you probably think. The latest sunrise occurs on Wednesday, January 5 at 7:36:05 am.

The winter solstice occurs when the North Pole’s tilt away from the sun is at its greatest, which is what makes it so flippin’ cold out there. But, surprisingly, Earth reaches its closest point to the sun on January 4. This might seem crazy at first, but the fact is that Earth’s axial tilt plays a far larger role in determining temperatures than does its position in orbit. Of course, our winter solstice is the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere, which means it will almost be summertime down there when that total eclipse of the sun hits Antarctica. Maybe you should plan to head down there after all – it’ll probably only be like 120 degrees below zero!

Until next time, remember to always keep an Eye on the Sky!

– Barry Pyne, HashtagWV #138. (Dec-Jan 2022) Contact the author at offthebeatenpathman@gmail.com

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