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"December highlights…."

Whilst many of us are spending our spare time in shops or on the internet trying to sort out those last minute Christmas presents, I am finding it hard to spend evenings away from the beautiful night skies that we have at this time of year.

Weather apart, December is an excellent time to be out stargazing as it often coincides with cold, crisp, clear nights full of astronomical wonders to observe. Take this week just gone, the Geminid meteor shower is always one of the best showers of the year but it also the last shower that we are expecting to see this year! This year the predicted show was subdued by the bright Moon but we still saw loads of celestial fireworks, with some observers seeing are 50 visible meteors per hour. That’s about one a minute.

They are called Geminids as all of the meteors appear to come from the constellation Gemini but they can appear almost anywhere in the night sky. They will tend to be slow moving and have occasionally been reported to have a yellowish colour. We think that these particles in space that are burning up in our atmosphere come from an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon, this is in itself unusual as most meteors are associated with cometary orbits - the Geminids and the Quadrantids appear to be the only two showers associated with asteroids.

Plenty of planets are on display with Venus taking centre stage, shining brightly the south western sky and is easily visible within an hour of sunset. Saturn is still visible but does set low in the West, not long after sunset with the beautiful bright Jupiter hanging on for another couple of hours before disappearing itself...

If you get a chance to look at Venus through a telescope, it will present a quarter lit crescent, getting thinner with each passing day. Mars is also making reappearance, rising just before sunrise . Mars always shows its colour, even when it is still relatively faint and small and can be seen as an orange star but large telescopes would be needed to show anything on its tiny apparent disk.

The International Space Station is also back in our skies with some very bright, high morning passes in the next couple of weeks as it orbits at roughly 250 miles above the Earth, passing over at around 17,500 miles per hour. For those of you with little ones, its always fun to get them to spot "Santa" flying over - it will be hard to get them up early this year as the passes are morning ones... It will be in our skies between 5 and 7 am until Christmas but look out for some especially bright passes over the next few weeks, with passes on the 22nd and 23rd being especially bright. They are at 6:46 and 6:07 am so you will need to be up nice and early to catch them...

Check out the website Heavens-Above where you can plug in your own local coordinates to get very accurate predictions of where and when to look.

Here's a couple of passes based on NW UK that might be worth showing the ankle biters...

Date Brightness Direction Time Highest point

24 Dec -3.2 WSW 07:39:50 59°

25 Dec -3.1 WSW 06:52:26 53°

It’s not just kids that like this time of year....

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