Celestial News: 2 big December astronomy events | SteamboatToday.com

Celestial News: 2 big December astronomy events

Jimmy Westlake
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

In spite of the cold December nights, the annual Geminid meteor shower is my favorite of the year. Their numbers equal or even surpass the August Perseids, plus the bright stars of Orion and company form a wonderful backdrop.

No Geminid meteors were reported before the year 1862, but ever since then, the shower has increased in strength every year. A single observer can expect to see between 90 and 120 meteors per hour at the peak of activity and under ideal sky conditions. The meteors seem to shoot out of the sky near the twin stars of Castor and Pollux in the constellation of Gemini, hence the name of this shower.

The source of the Geminid meteors is a small asteroid named 3200 Phaethon. Most other meteor showers are associated with icy comets, not rocky asteroids. Perhaps 3200 Phaethon is the rocky corpse of a burned-out comet, one that has lost all of its ice. When Phaethon makes its blazing-hot pass near the sun every 1.4 years, the solar heat bakes and cracks the asteroid’s surface, leaving a trail of dusty debris in its wake. It is this dust swarm that the earth passes through every December that creates our Geminid meteor shower.

The Geminid meteor shower this year peaks in the predawn hours of Dec. 14, just four days before the full Cold Moon floods the sky with light. You can start to see meteors around 10 p.m. under bright moonlight, but the fat gibbous moon will set around 3 a.m. local time the morning of the peak, leaving the remainder of the night dark and perfect for watching meteors shoot across the sky.

Don’t just watch for Geminid meteors on the night of the expected peak. Dozens of meteors can be seen for a night or two on either side of the peak. In fact, observers have noticed that there tends to be more bright fireballs in the days after the peak.

Anyone under the age of 30 never has known a time when there wasn’t a Hubble Space Telescope up there circling the Earth and exploring the universe, but the aging HST won’t last forever. What is the next generation telescope that will take up where Hubble leaves off?

It’s the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST. James Webb was the director of NASA who oversaw the Apollo moon landings and is honored with his name attached to this new telescope.

The launch of the JWST has been delayed many times since its original 2007 launch date, but if all goes according to plan, the JWST finally will launch Dec. 22. It will head, not for Earth’s orbit, but for the L2 Lagrangian point, about a million miles outside of earth’s orbit, where the telescope will parallel earth’s motion around the sun.

Whereas the HST has a single 7.9-foot diameter mirror that fit snugly inside of the Space Shuttle cargo bay, the JWSP has a segmented mirror made up of 18 individual pieces, for a total diameter of 21.3 feet. A mirror that large will not fit inside of any rocket, so it has to be able to fold up and then deploy in space like an umbrella. With a big $10 billion price tag, JWST comes with big expectations, like being able to see planets circling nearby stars and peering back 13.5 billion years to the time of the very first stars and galaxies in the universe. No doubt, the JWST will help to rewrite astronomy books for decades to come. Don’t miss the historic launch Dec. 22.

For information about astronomy-related events in Steamboat Springs, including public star parties at CMC’s Ball Observatory, contact physics and astronomy instructor Paul McCudden, at pmccudden@coloradomtn.edu or 970-870-4537 or visit the Sky Club web page at ColoradoMTN.edu/skyclub.

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