Planets to align before 2021's best meteor shower

·4 min read

The final month of the year also features the longest nights of the year, and the extra hours of darkness will have astronomical events that people of all ages can enjoy without a telescope.

The annual Geminid meteor shower will steal the spotlight as not just the top event of December, but also one of the best meteor showers of the entire year. However, onlookers will need to bundle up for a cold night to enjoy what the Geminids have to offer.

December will also bring the final eclipse of the year, although very few people will see it. The total solar eclipse on Dec. 4 will be visible for only a sliver of Antarctica and over the open waters of nearby oceans.

The other big astronomy events of the month will be visible for millions of people, starting off with an event that can be seen even from the heart of bright cities.

1. Moon, Jupiter, Saturn and Venus to align
When:
Dec. 10

A trio of planets will align in the evening sky throughout most of December, but on Friday, Dec. 10, the moon will fall in line with the planets.

Venus, Saturn and Jupiter will be visible after sunset in the southwestern sky and will all appear bright enough to see without the help of a telescope. Saturn is the dimmest of the three and will be sandwiched between Jupiter and Venus.

Between Dec. 6 and Dec. 9, the crescent moon will appear close to the planets, but on Dec. 10, it will align almost perfectly with the planets not long after nightfall.

Planets are not depicted to scale. The rings of Saturn cannot be seen without a telescope.

Venus, Saturn and Jupiter will remain prominent features in the evening sky through much of the balance of December but will set earlier and earlier each night.

2. Geminid meteor shower
When:
Dec. 13-14

One of the best meteor showers of the entire year is right around the corner, and those who endure a chilly December night could be rewarded with more than 100 meteors per hour.

The Geminids peak on the night of Monday, Dec. 13 into the early hours of Tuesday, Dec. 14, but it is not just the onslaught of meteors that make this event so popular. This is one of the few annual meteor showers that is active in the earlier evening hours, making it great for younger stargazers.

A person looking on at the glow of the aurora at the same time that a meteor streaks through the sky. (Image/Mukul Parashar)

Under ideal conditions, hourly rates could exceed 100 meteors per hour, but onlookers this year should curb expectations. Light given off by the nearly full moon this year will reduce hourly rates to closer to 30 to 40 meteors per hour.

If cloudy conditions prevail for the Geminids, there will be one more opportunity to spot some shooting stars before the calendar turns to 2022.

3. Meteor shower on the solstice
When:
Dec. 21-22

The December solstice will bring the shortest day and the longest night of the entire year to the Northern Hemisphere, as well as marking the official start of astronomical winter. This year, the solstice occurs at 10:59 a.m. EST on Tuesday, Dec. 21.

The longest night of the year brings an added bonus for skywatchers: the Ursid meteor shower.

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"The Ursids are often neglected due to the fact it peaks just before Christmas and the rates are much less than the Geminds, which peaks just a week before the Ursids," the American Meteor Society explained on its website.

Only around 10 meteors per hour are visible during the Ursids, and unlike the Geminids, are not typically visible until the second half of the night.

There is one more meteor shower unfolding in the next few months, and that is the Quadrantids, which peaks on the second night of the new year. This shower can occasionally produce outbursts on par with the Geminids, but typically only features around 20 to 30 meteors per hour.

After the Quadrantids, skywatchers will have to wait until late April for the next opportunity to watch a meteor shower.

Correction: This story previously misstated the day on which the December solstice occurs. The solstice will take place on Tuesday, Dec. 21.

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