Solstice, showers in store this month

Sunday, December 6, 2015

In addition to the holiday season, December brings the Winter Solstice and one of the year's best meteor showers.

Another year is nearly gone and the last month of the year, December, also holds the Winter Solstice, the official astronomical beginning of winter. This year's solstice occurs on Dec. 21 and marks the day when the sun takes its lowest path across the sky for the entire year. The exact time of the solstice in Hutchinson will be 10:49 pm.

In the modern world with the hustle and bustle of life, most people aren't attuned to the sun and its low southerly arc on the Winter Solstice. But for ancient cultures, who relied on knowing the natural rhythm of the seasons for their very survival, it was a significant occurrence.

They knew that after the Winter Solstice, days would gradually get longer, so the solstice was celebrated as a time of rebirth and renewal. Elaborate temples and monuments, such as Stonehenge in England, and Newgrange in Scotland were built to lineup with the rising or setting sun on the solstice.

December also happens to be the month for one of the year's best meteor showers, the Geminids. The Geminids are the leftover debris of an asteroid and can produce up to 120 meteors per hour. Most meteor showers stem from dust of leftover comets, but since the Geminids originate from an asteroid, viewers are more likely to witness fireballs that streak across the sky, leaving greenish tales in their wake. This year's Geminids peak on the night of Dec. 13 and 14. There will be no moonlight to interfere with the best viewing time, which occurs between midnight and 5 a.m. Meteors can emanate from anywhere in the sky, but you should look for them in an easterly direction.

In the morning before dawn, the planets Venus and Mars remain visible, with brighter Venus lower in the sky than reddish Mars.

Toward the month's onset, Venus forms a large triangle with Mars and the bright bluish star Spica. Brilliant Jupiter is visible also, high in the sky.