Look up to the night sky: a guide to stargazing events over winter break

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Each year, the holiday season and the new year – with its early sunsets and lengthy night skies – present opportunities for stargazers to observe unique astronomical phenomena. Elaina Hyde, director of the Allan I. Carswell Observatory at York University, suggests several nighttime events in the next month that are worth looking up to the sky to see.

Dec. 14-15: The annual Geminid meteor shower, considered one of the best, is estimated to have as many as 120 meteors – or shooting stars – per hour. The shower will begin as early as 6 p.m. on Dec. 4, but will peak between Dec. 14 and 15. The Geminids are associated with the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, and as Earth “flies through” the debris, the resulting dust grains are seen as shooting stars radiating from the constellation Gemini. Dark skies are recommended for viewing, but no binoculars or telescopes are needed.

Dec. 26: The Cold Moon, a name given to the full moon in December, will occur on Dec. 26 at 7:33 p.m. in Toronto, rising at 4:09 p.m. and setting at 7:54 a.m. the next day. It will be widely visible for the entire night and well worth bringing out binoculars for. Since it is the closest full moon to the winter solstice, in ancient times it would be used to mark solstice celebrations. The full moon occurs when the sun and moon are aligned on opposite sides of Earth, which means when you see the full moon directly overhead in the sky, the sun is beneath your feet on the other side of the planet.

Events to watch for in the new year

Jan. 2, 2024: At 7:38 a.m. the Earth will be at its closest point – 147,100,632 kilometres – to the sun, known as Earth’s perihelion, providing a welcome opportunity to try to picture Earth’s orbit. A fun note: since Earth’s orbit does vary slightly over time, the dates of perihelion change by about one day every 58 years, which means in about 4,000 years, perihelion will match up with the March equinox.

Jan. 3 to 4, 2024: The best night to watch the Quadrantids meteor, which can be an astronomical challenge to see, as its peak only lasts for a few hours, not days, and because the constellation it was named for – Quadrans Muralis – no longer exists. The constellation was removed from the official list of the International Astronomical Union in 1922, and is now called Bootes. The asteroid that created the debris for this meteor shower is called asteroid 2003 EH1 (likely an extinct comet). The exact peak should be near 4 a.m. on Jan. 4, 2024, but the constellation Bootes, from which it will appear to originate, will be visible in dark skies above Toronto all evening, with a best angle around 3 a.m. until sunrise on Jan. 4, 2024.

Beyond the winter break, at York’s Keele Campus, the Allan I. Carswell Observatory offers additional astronomy opportunities for those interested in the night skies.

Mondays: The “York Universe” radio show is broadcast on Monday nights (9 to 10 p.m. EST from October to March; 9 to 10 p.m. EDT from April to September) on the online radio station astronomy.fm. Tune in every week for a new, exciting broadcast about what is new in astronomy, this week in history and interviews with scientists from around the world. Running simultaneously with the “York Universe” radio show is the weekly Online Public Viewing experience on YouTube. Anyone can tune in to see live images from the Observatory’s four telescopes/cameras when possible, view reduced astronomical images and chat with Observatory staff, who are happy to answer questions. Requests for objects to observe will be entertained.

Wednesdays: The Observatory is open for in-person public viewing every Wednesday evening after sunset. Visit the Observatory homepage for tickets and times, as the sunset time will change throughout the year. Visitors can observe selected celestial objects in the presence of friendly staff and engage in various hands-on presentations.

Last Friday of the month: The Observatory hosts a live TeleTube tour on its YouTube channel on the last Friday of every month at 7:30 p.m. ET. This online viewing is followed by a Q-and-A session with the Observatory team. View the archive of TeleTube episodes.

Those who want to view old broadcasts or join in live can get the schedule with all the links from the Observatory’s new website or join directly on YouTube.

Read an interview with Hyde on these stargazing possibilities at News@York.