Astronomical spectacles grace Christmas skies

Christmas comets PHOTO CREDIT: Soefrm @Wikimedia

Nigerians and indeed people all over the world are in for some astronomical spectacles expected to grace the Christmas skies.

As 2018 winds down, the astronomical calendar continues its healthy pace.

This month, Nigerians have a variety of interesting viewing opportunities – from close encounters to meteor showers, including planets, moons, two comets, and even some star clusters.

Interestingly, astronomers have confirmed that every event on this list is visible with either unaided eyes or a pair of binoculars.

According to Astronomy.com and Space.com, there was the New Moon phase on December 7; Geminid meteors on December 13-14; Mercury at greatest western elongation on December 15; Winter solstice (22:23 UTC) to be expected on December 21; Ursids meteors on December 21-22; Full Moon phase on December 22; and close approach of the Moon and M44 on December 24.

The ‘night sky’ event of December 21 is actually not a single event; the whole day marks the December Solstice for planet earth.

For those in the Northern Hemisphere, this is the shortest day of the year and begins the winter season; the southern hemisphere will experience the longest day of the year and start the summer season.

While the Geminids are the star of December’s meteoric events, do not forget that the Ursids occur too, peaking on the 22nd.

The Ursids occur from December 17th to 25th, and their night of peak activity will see a maximum of about 10 meteors per hour.

This may seem low after the Geminids, but the Ursids are still a respectable and consistent meteor shower late each year.

The Ursids radiate from the constellation Ursa Minor. Look for the North Star to find Ursa Minor, and then scan the whole northern sky to try and spot these meteors as they occur.

For the final night sky event in December, the moon has one last close encounter. This time, it is with M44, known as the Beehive Cluster.

The moon will pass M44 within 0°17; as the moon will be at almost full brightness (91 per cent), its light will likely obscure M44 around the time.

Instead, look for M44 near the moon in the hours before or after the close encounter (at sunset or the early hours of December 25th).

Meanwhile, astronomy enthusiasts were treated to astonishing show visible by the naked eye of 120 shooting stars an hour in showers that peaked on December 12.

The spectacular event coincided with a space rock dubbed the Christmas comet, tipped to be the brightest of the year.

The Geminids meteor shower consisted of multi-coloured shooting stars visible from the ground on Thursday December 13 and Friday December 14.

The fluorescent blue coloured Christmas comet skimmed to within 7.1 million miles of our planet, or 30 times the distance to the moon.

The Geminid meteor shower is sometimes referred to as the King of Meteor Showers as it is one of the best of the year, with up to 150 shooting stars streaking across the sky every hour.

The debris burns up when it enters the Earth’s atmosphere, giving the appearance of a “shooting star.”

The shower happens when the Earth crosses paths with a trail of rocky debris left behind by an asteroid known as 3200 Phaethon.

Another unusual feature of the Geminids is that they can shine in different colours. Mostly glowing white, they may also appear yellow, blue, green or red.

Geminid meteor showers occur when moves through the debris from asteroid 3200 Phaeton as it orbits the sun.

Meanwhile, astronomers have discovered the most distant body ever observed in our Solar System.

Nicknamed ‘Farout’, the new object was announced by the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center and has been given the provisional designation 2018 VG18.

It is about 120 astronomical units (AU), where 1 AU is defined as the distance between the Earth and the Sun, and the first known Solar System object detected at a distance of more than 100 times farther than Earth is from the Sun.

Its brightness suggests that it is about 310 miles in diameter, likely making it spherical in shape and a dwarf planet.

It has a pinkish hue, a colour generally associated with ice-rich objects.

The discovery images of 2018 VG18 were taken at the Japanese Subaru 8-meter telescope located atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii on November 10, 2018.

The second-most-distant observed Solar System object is Eris, at about 96 AU.

Pluto is currently at about 34 AU, making 2018 VG18 more than three-and-a-half times more distant than the Solar System’s most-famous dwarf planet.

Carnegie’s Scott S. Sheppard, the University of Hawaii’s David Tholen, and Northern Arizona University’s Chad Trujillo made the discovery.

2018 VG18 was discovered as part of the team’s continuing search for extremely distant Solar System objects, including the suspected Planet X, which is sometimes also called Planet 9.

What is mysterious ‘Planet X’? Astronomers believe that the orbits of a number of bodies in the distant reaches of the solar system have been disrupted by the pull of an as yet unidentified planet.

First proposed by a group at CalTech in the United States (U.S.), this alien world was theorised to explain the distorted paths seen in distant icy bodies.

In order to fit in with the data they have, this alien world – popularly called Planet Nine – would need to be roughly four times the size of Earth and ten times the mass.

Researchers say a body of this size and mass would explain the clustered paths of a number of icy minor planets beyond Neptune.

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