It’s the most wonderful time of the year for Long Islanders to see meteor showers and planetary alignments.
The December sky marks an interesting celestial show for star watchers as 2021 comes to a close with three simultaneous events happening, astronomers said.
Dave Bush, planetarium director at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum and Planetarium in Centerport, said December ushers in all the wintertime stars and constellations that are the brightest of any season. Orion the hunter constellation will be arriving, as will the body of interstellar clouds known as the Orion Nebula, which Bush said is probably the brightest and most impressive nebula for any season.
But that’s not all.
"We’ve got multiple events taking place at the same time," Bush said. "If you go out and we have clear skies, you’ll be treated not to just a beautiful starry sky with the brightest stars of any season, but you’ll also have a good strong possibility of seeing a meteor, observing a comet through a pair of binoculars and also witnessing a planetary and moon alignment at the same time."
The first of the three special celestial events is the visibility of the Comet Leonard. Binoculars will be needed to spot the comet located beneath the arc of the handle of the big dipper, looking east. There, to the left of a red star, Arcturus, in the constellation of Boötes, the brightest star of the year will be shining, Bush said. The best time to see it is in the predawn hours but it’s visible in the night sky until Dec. 15.
Also visible is the annual Geminid meteor shower, peaking Monday night until the next morning.
"You don’t need a telescope or a pair of binoculars. You don’t have to find any particular area of the sky; these meteors, or shooting stars can arrive in any direction," Bush said. "The best way to view those is to get really comfortable, grab a sweater or blanket and hang out in a lounge chair, or better yet a gravity chair and just look up at the nighttime sky."
He said there could be upwards of 100 meteors an hour.
Lastly the moon will make an appearance with a trio of planets until Thursday. Jupiter, Saturn and Venus will be aligned with the moon located just to the left of Jupiter.
"Planets are not always visible in the same area of the sky at the same time," Bush said. "It’s a visually appealing sight to see."
Bush recommends going online to find light pollution maps to locate the darkest areas on Long Island, but a dark sky should not dim the possibilities of seeing at least part of the natural, dazzling show.
"Basically, you want to find the darkest sky as possible," Bush said. "But all of these are visible even with some light polluted skies, so that’s why it makes it pretty special, meteors tend to bright, planets and the moon are bright, so you just have to keep your fingers crossed and hope for clear skies."
See the stars come out
- The next few days are considered among the best of the year to see constellations, meteor showers and planetary alignments.
- Through Dec. 15, Long Islanders will be able to see Comet Leonard, the annual Geminid meteor shower, and the alignment of Jupiter, Saturn and Venus.
- The best time to see the celestial show is at night in an area not encumbered by excessive lighting.
Source: Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum and Planetarium