Falling stars, a blue moon
What's Up Tonight?
This year has been designated International Year of Astronomy by the United Nations to highlight 400 years of astronomy since 1609 when Galileo first viewed the heavens with a telescope. It was also 400 years ago when Galileo turned his telescope toward the moon and discovered that the moon "is uneven, rough and full of cavities and prominences." It also marked 40 years since human beings first walked on the moon. As this special year draws to a close, we are reminded of how much, in recent years, humanity has learned about the universe and our place in it - from discovering craters on the moon to walking on it.
It concludes with a full moon on New Year's Eve. As the second full moon of December, this has recently become known as a "blue moon" although there is nothing "blue" about the moon and it has no special astronomical significance. The Roman calendar, a human invention, includes 30 or 31 days in 11 months of the year. A lunar cycle is 29.5 days. If a full moon occurs early in the month, another full moon will occur 29.5 days later and land in the same month. Such is the case on Dec. 31 when the "blue moon" coincides with New Year's Eve celebrations.
Just as a "blue moon" has nothing to do with the color of the moon, so also, "falling stars" have nothing to do with stars. In November and December, two meteor showers should provide an abundance of "falling stars." Ten years ago the Leonid meteor shower in November provided a once in a lifetime, super abundance of "shooting stars" throughout the night sky. This year we may experience another year of abundant meteorites on the night of Monday, November 16 through the wee hours of Nov. 17. The meteorites are pieces of dust and debris left by a comet and each year in November, earth's orbit takes us through particles of dust left by the comet. When they enter the earth's atmosphere, they burn up and produce a brief "falling star." To enjoy the show, find an open area where you can view as much dark sky as possible. Some people are predicting that you will see two or more meteorites per minute. Then, in December the Geminid meteor shower occurs on the mostly moonless night of Dec. 13 and into the early hours of Dec. 14. If you have a camera with a wide angle lens, time exposures of the sky should capture a few streaks of light across the star-filled sky.
Why not catch the special events of November and December for your personal "Galileo moment"?