Look to the night skies

December 08, 2017

As Australia gears up for the Christmas break, our warm summer evenings make the night sky come alive — and you do not need to be a professional astronomer or even have a telescope, to catch all of these celestial treats.

This summer in particular will feature a wide variety of astronomical events which can be seen from your own backyard.

The most consistent meteor shower of the year, the Geminids, starts this weekend and peaks on December 13.

Start looking eastward from 11pm and meteors should be visible until dawn. We can usually expect around 20 meteors an hour.

If you cannot travel to a dark spot, find a shed or part of the house that gives you some shelter from the glare.

Some say the best time to view the Geminids will be 2am to 3am. Grab a hot cuppa and just sit and wait. It will happen.

This summer will also be an excellent opportunity for stargazers to go planet-spotting.

Mars and Jupiter rise just before dawn in the east and Venus is eye-catching in the western sky after sunset.

By the end of the month, the red planet Mars will have drifted towards Venus and will sit just above and to the right.

Mars and Jupiter can be seen in the eastern sky before sunrise, paired up with the bright star Spica. They form a lovely grouping on the morning of December 14.

Unfortunately, Saturn is too close to the setting sun to be seen this month. It returns to our morning skies early next year.

It might surprise you to know that up until the late 1700s we only knew of these six planets in the solar system — Uranus Neptune and Pluto had not even been thought of.

The term planet comes from the Greek word for wanderer.

Many ancient people thought the planets were gods, so they gave them the names of their gods.

All of the planets, except Earth, have names of Roman deities — Mercury is the winged messenger of the gods, Mars is the god of war, and, because of its virginal white light, Venus was called the goddess of love.

So, what’s Earth’s name?

Simple, it is Terra.

Yes, as in Terra Firma, and did you know the Moon has a proper name too? It’s called Luna.

Now, go and skygaze.

David Reneke is a feature writer for Australasian Science magazine and a science correspondent for ABC and commercial radio. Get David’s free astronomy newsletter at www.davidreneke.com

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