December is one of the most exciting months for sky-gazers. That’s because the Geminid meteor shower reaches its peak activity around the middle of the month. It’s probably the best meteor shower of the year, producing up to 150 meteors per hour under perfectly dark skies. After the peak of Geminids, sky-gazers are treated with the Ursid meteor shower. It’s relatively weaker, but a great watch with Christmas around the corner.
Besides the annual meteor showers this year, there’s another compelling reason to look up. Mars is at its closest to Earth in more than two years and rules the night sky along with Jupiter. The planet shines brightly in its signature red hue. And the best part? The red planet will hide behind the Moon in a rare lunar occultation that will be visible from some parts of the world. Here’s everything you need to know.
How to see Mars in the night sky?
Mars made its closest approach to Earth (its perigee) on December 1. The planet will reach its opposition on December 8. A superior planet is at opposition when it aligns with the Earth opposite the Sun, as shown.
Around opposition, the planet rises in the East around sunset reaches its highest point in the sky at midnight, and sets in the West at dawn. It’s the best time to see the planet with the naked eye and photograph it through a telescope. The opposition and perigee have different dates because of the relatively short distance between the Earth and Mars and their elliptical orbits.
Mars lies in Taurus and becomes visible as soon as the dusk sky fades into darkness. It is at its highest point in the sky around midnight local time. Mars’ blazes’ at an apparent magnitude of -1.9. In astronomy, the apparent magnitude measures an object’s brightness. The lower the number, the brighter the object. Jupiter will be at an apparent magnitude of -2.6; hence, Mars will be the second brightest speck of light in the night sky.
Of all the planets, Mars shows the greatest variation in its apparent size and brightness. Its angular size varies by a factor of more than seven, between 25.69” and 3.49”.
This comes about because it neighbors the Earth in the solar system, orbiting the Sun at a distance of about 1.5 times the Earth’s distance from the Sun. This means that its distance from the Earth varies greatly, between 0.36 AU and 2.68 AU, depending on whether it lies next to or opposite to the Earth in its orbit.
The Moon photobombs Mars
On December 7-8, the Moon will pass in front of Mars, temporarily hiding the planet from view. The lunar occultation of Mars, however, will be only seen from parts of the US, Europe, and Northern Africa, as shown below. The two celestial objects will appear too close to each other from the rest of the world.
Plot Twist: Hubble Confirms Our Physics Is Broken!
Meet Saraswati, One of the Biggest Structures Ever Discovered In The Universe.
The Inspiring Story of the Man Whose Math Led To The Formulation of Einstein’s General Relativity.