It is not too late to look skyward -

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Distinguished member
Jul 5, 2018
Get set for a slew of big celestial events on Monday — the winter solstice; the shortest day of the year; the Ursid meteor shower; and a once-in-a lifetime great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.

First, the winter solstice arrives at 5:02 a.m., the moment when the North Pole tilts farthest from the sun and winter officially begins. It also will be the day with the fewest daylight hours, making Monday the shortest day — and longest night — of the year.

In his Pulitzer Prizewinning book, “Wandering Through Winter,” the late naturalist Edwin Way Teale eloquently described the instance of the winter solstice: “In that moment … a season dies; a season is born. We took one breath in autumn, the next in winter.” Ancient people, he noted, lit bonfires to strengthen the expiring sun.

Bonfires or not, after Monday, the days gradually will grow longer until the first day of summer on June 20, the longest day of the year.

As darkness sets in on Monday, you can begin looking toward the eastern sky for streaking meteors as the annual Ursid meteor shower peaks at about 15 meteors per hour.

The Ursids, so named because they seem to emanate from the Ursa Minor constellation, appear each year in late December around the winter solstice.

Though not as flashy as other annual meteor showers, they nevertheless can provide a delightful pre-Christmas experience for sky watchers.

Then, also at dark, comes the most talked about sky event of the year — the great conjunction, or near alignment, of Jupiter and Saturn in the southwestern sky. It will be the closest visible encounter between the two giants since 1226 A.D.

They will appear to be just a tenth of a degree apart — or about the thickness of a dime held at arm’s length, according to NASA. The conjunction is a result of the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn coming into line as viewed from Earth, although the two planets still will be some 400 million miles apart.

Some folks are calling the conjunction a Christmas Star since it will appear near the holiday.

Tellus Science Museum astronomer David Dundee said light from a first quarter moon on Monday should not interfere with observations of the sky events. Elsewhere, Venus is low in the east and rises just before dawn. Mars is high in the east at dusk.
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