Celestial News: See the moon eclipse Mars and meteors, too
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
You’ve probably seen a total eclipse of the moon. You might have even witnessed a much rarer total eclipse of the Sun. But have you ever seen a total eclipse of the planet Mars? Occasionally, the moon will pass in front of Mars and temporarily block it from view in what astronomers call an occultation. Well, get ready to check this one off of your astronomical bucket list. On the evening of Wednesday, Dec. 7, the red planet Mars will be occulted (eclipsed) by the full Long Night Moon.
When the full moon rises in the northeastern sky around sunset that night, the bright, reddish planet Mars will be trailing right behind it. As the moon/Mars pair rises higher up in the sky, the distance between the two will shrink until 7:43 p.m., when the edge of Mars touches the moon’s edge near the eight o’clock position. Mars will not wink out instantly because it has a sizable disk, even though you can’t see the disk with the naked eye. It will take about 36 seconds for Mars to fade and completely disappear at 7:44 p.m.
Mars will be hidden by the moon for about one hour, then it will begin to reappear near the moon’s three o’clock position beginning at 8:48 p.m. Forty-one seconds later, Mars will shine once again at its full brightness.
Although no optical aid is required to see this occultation, binoculars will enhance the view, and the view through a telescope – any telescope – will be fantastic.
As an extra bonus for this rare occultation, the planet Mars will be at opposition on the night of the event. Opposition is when an outer planet passes closest to Earth, as the two orbit around the Sun. Oppositions of slow-moving Jupiter and Saturn happen once a year, but oppositions of Mars are rarer. It takes the Earth 780 days (2.14 years) to gain a lap on Mars for an opposition.
Also, due to Mars’ elliptical orbit, some oppositions are closer and more favorable than others. Under the most favorable conditions, Mars can come within 34.6-million miles of Earth, as it did in 2003. When Mars reaches opposition on Wednesday, it will be 51.1-million miles from Earth, blazing like a red beacon, right between the horns of Taurus, the Bull. That’s not quite as close as it was in 2020, but it is closer than it will be at the next opposition in 2025. In fact, Mars won’t be closer to Earth until 2033.
The second big event happening in December skies is the annual Geminid meteor shower. The Geminid meteor shower is arguably the best meteor shower of the year and is due to peak before dawn Dec. 14. Under ideal conditions, you can expect to see upwards of 90 Geminid meteors per hour at the peak of activity, however, this year’s conditions are not ideal. The waning gibbous moon will shine from 9:40 p.m. to dawn and wash out many of the faintest meteors. But don’t let that discourage you from stepping out in the crisp night air to watch for meteors.
The Geminid shower is rich in bright meteors and fireballs that make long, slow streaks across all parts of the sky. Just keep the moon to your back and you should still see plenty of meteors. The meteors appear to spring out of our constellation Gemini, the Twins, hence the name for this shower. Dozens of Geminid meteors can be seen for several mornings on either side of the peak too, so don’t let cloudy weather stop you. Get out there and watch the best meteor shower of the year!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-870-4537 or visit the SKY Club web page at http://www.coloradomtn.edu/skyclub.
Jimmy Westlake is adjunct Professor of Physical Sciences at Colorado Mountain College and former Director of the Rollins Planetarium at Young Harris College in Georgia and the St. Charles Parish Library Planetarium, in Luling, Louisiana. His “Celestial News” column appears monthly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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