Even though we missed out on one of our best chances to see the great phenomenon known as the Northern Lights, there are still a couple more fun space events to look forward to as we wrap up December. First let’s talk briefly about our miss with the aurora. What happened?
In short, the coronal mass ejection (CME) we got from the sun never ended up kicking off a geomagnetic storm, and there is actually a reason for this. When CME’s erupt their magnetic field it either points northward or southward. In this case the magnetic field pointed northward, which ends up sealing the cracks in Earth’s magnetic field. This then blocks the solar wind or flare from creating a geomagnetic storm from interacting with Earth’s magnetic field. No interaction, no auroras. Boo.
Now let’s look at some of the other celestial events we may be able to see before the year is up.
Geminid Meteor Shower
We’ll start with the most recent upcoming event, The Geminid Meteor Shower. The Geminids come from the parent body known as Paethon 3200; an asteroid that acts like a comet as it leaves behind a trail of debris that sparks this annual meteor shower. It’s expected to peak on the night of December 13th-14th, but you’ll be able to see occasional meteors in the sky as soon as tonight as the Earth begins to enter this stream of debris. According to all-sky meteor cameras from NASA, there have been 8 “Geminid fireballs” already detected over the U.S., and it will only increase as it approaches the peak with up to 60 meteors per hour expected by Sunday night.
The best time for viewing this will be in a dark sky around 2 am. That means away from any light pollution. The only caveat here will be blankets of cloud cover that will more than likely get in the way this weekend. With that said, we will not be able to see the peak of this meteor shower given the current forecast.
Tonight on the other hand looks the most promising for any stray meteor appearances as our blanket of overcast turns to partly cloudy skies.
The Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn
Now on to the event shown in the featured image at the very top of the page. On the December solstice (the 21st), the gas giant planets Jupiter and Saturn will make their great conjunction; one that they do every 20 years. The unique thing about this particular conjunction is that it will be the closest observable approach since 1226 A.D. They also refer to this as the “great” conjunction since it involves the two “biggest worlds” in our solar system.
What is a conjunction? It’s a fancy way of saying a “close approach” of two celestial objects that make them appear nearly side by side in the night sky from Earth. Even though the two objects look like they’re right next to each other, our perspective on Earth only gives us that illusion despite the fact they’re actually still a fairly long distance away from each other in space. The two planets will only be 0.1° apart from each other in the night sky at their closest point, which is the closest they’ve been in centuries. How rare? The next great conjunction of these two planets won’t be until March of 2080!
Fun Fact: The winter solstice is the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere
You can see this in the southwest sky just 45 minutes after sunset, starting now until they reach their closest point to each other on the solstice. They just won’t be nearly as close to each other as they will in just another week or so.
This is also being referred to as the “Christmas Star” due the event occurring just 4 days before Christmas, and because they’ll be so close to each other that they’ll appear as one, bright light in the sky as a star would. When you’re looking for this in the sky it very well may look like an elongated star in the sky, but the reality is they’re not stars. They’re planets! This event also does not mean it’s the end all be all of the world, and it doesn’t hold any deeper meaning than what it is. It’s just two planets joining in together for a rare reunion.
Even though cloudy skies in the forecast this weekend look to block the peak of our Geminid shower, you may still be able to see a few in the Thursday to Friday night sky this evening. Plus, we have the great conjunction to look forward to. Many of us won’t be alive the next time this happens, so let’s see if we can end our 2020 on a bright note!
~Meteorologist Christine Gregory