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A Comet, a Meteor Shower, and an Eclipse

A Comet, a Meteor Shower, and an Eclipse

Some big celestial events are taking place in Northeastern Ontario this winter.

Gary Boyle is a astronomy expert and has a passion for sharing detailed knowledge of the sky. He is drawn to Northeastern Ontario because he loves the cool, clear nights, and consistent celestial events making stargazing easy for all. Click here to read more of Gary's work.

For thousands of years, early civilizations observed a star-filled sky, especially on moonless nights. That was their entertainment, that was their guidance. Other than the moon changing positions from night to night and the inching of bright planets across the sky over weeks and months, the night sky was uneventful except for the occasional display of the Northern Lights. But from time to time, strange events cast fear in the hearts of those who watched in horror, and this was common in Northeastern Ontario. Superstition and beliefs pointed to the gods being angry.

Comet Lovejoy (photo provided by Gary Boyle)

What were terrifying events back then are now beautiful acts of nature we can all enjoy. First we have Comet 46P/Wirtanen—now seen low in the southeastern sky and steadily climbing throughout December. Discovered in January 1948 by Carl Wirtanen at Lick Observatory in California, it is considered a short period comet that orbits the sun every 5.4 years. This is in contrast to Halley’s Comet that circles every 75.8 years and will not be seen until July 2061. The nucleus of Comet Wirtanen measures 1.2 km wide and its green coma already appear the size of the full moon.

Using the chart below, follow its path with simple binoculars. It is predicted to be bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye in the dark countryside by mid-month; wait till the moon has set to achieve the darkest setting. On December 16, the comet will pass unusually close to the earth at distance of 11.5 million km, only four days after passing the sun.

Comet Wirtanen (photo provided by Gary Boyle)

Early cultures and civilizations deemed comets as messengers of impending doom, causing floods, famine, drought, and wars. Comets are flying mountains made up of rock, ice, and organic compounds. Various comets can produce long tails but each are different. Bright comets such as Wirtanen do not come by too often, just the telescopic ones.

The Geminid meteor shower will peak on the night of December 13/14. This shower is produced from the asteroid 3200 Phaethon—a possible dead comet. The best time to view the height of the shower is after midnight on Friday morning the 14th until dawn. As Earth ploughs through the debris field of sand-sized particles, the Geminids will produce 120 meteors per hour along with a few fireballs that can light up the ground. These meteors will strike our atmosphere at 35 km/sec, compared to the Perseids in August that vapourize at 72 km/sec. Yes, it will be cold, but we have a grand meteor shower and a bright comet on the same night.

Super Blood Moon (photo provided by Gary Boyle)

On the night of January 20-21, 2019 where North America will have a ring side seat to a total lunar eclipse aka the Super Blood Moon. A lunar eclipse is simply the full moon passing through the earth shadow and is completely safe to look at. All times are Eastern Standard.

  • Partical eclipse begins - 10:33 pm
  • Totality begins - 11:41 pm
  • Mid eclipse - 12:12 am
  • Totality end - 12:43 am
  • Partial eclipse - 1:50 am

The colour change is the result of sunlight passing through our atmosphere onto the lunar surface, much like we see red sunsets in summer. If you were on the moon, you would see a reddish orange ring around d the Earth. The term “Super Moon” was derived from an astrologer in 1979 and is the combination of the full moon along with its closest distance of its elliptical orbit around the earth.

Photo provided by Gary Boyle

Even with these three events occurring, I must still mention the gorgeous winter sky. Here we see a dozen bright stars with Orion the Hunter at the centre. Hanging down his belt—the three stars lined in a row is his sword. This hazy-looking object is the Orion Nebula. It is the place of star formation to hundreds of stars, 1,500 light years away. Words cannot describe seeing these distant suns. One must experience first hand from dark site such as the pristine skies of Northern Ontario. The faint Milky Way band can be seen to left side of Orion running from top to bottom. Here we see the opposite end and thinnest part of the galaxy as opposed to viewing its centre in summer and fall.

Photo provided by Gary Boyle

The planet Mars put on a fantastic show at the end of July, and is seen low in the west, but sets around 11 p.m. on December 1. Look east before sunrise for the brilliant planet Venus. Around the middle of December, it begins to sink lower morning to morning. From December 18-25, the planet Jupiter approaches and passes Venus to what I call the “Spooky eyes” on the 25th.

New moon occurs on December 7, January 6, February 4 and March 6.
Full moon occurs on December 22, January 21, February 19 and March 21.

Until next time, clear skies everyone.

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