December: Clouds and meteors provide a visual feast

The Tarantula Nebula (NGC 2070) is a large open cluster located in the southeast corner of the Large Magellanic Cloud. It includes the most massive star known, R136a1. Photo by MPAS member Russell Smith

The Magellanic Clouds can be seen sitting in the southern part of the night sky this month. The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) sits in Tucana, while the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) hovers on the border of the constellations Dorado and Mensa. Look out for the Tarantula Nebula (NGC 2070) in the LMC. 

High in the northeast lies the fantastic nebula M42, in Orion. In the nearby constellation Taurus, you have a great opportunity to observe two open star clusters, the Hyades and the Pleiades. The Pleiades star cluster, or M45, can be seen with the naked eye and is a wonderful sight in a small telescope.

This month we have the Geminids meteor shower, which is considered one of the most spectacular meteor showers of the year with the possibility of sighting about 120 meteors an hour at its peak on the night of December 13-14. The shower owes its name to the constellation Gemini because the meteors seem to emerge from this constellation. Unlike most other meteor showers, the Geminids is not associated with a comet but with an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon. As Earth passes through a massive trail of dusty debris shed by the weird, rocky object, the dust and grit burns up as it runs into our atmosphere in a flurry of shooting stars. The asteroid takes about 1.4 years to orbit the Sun. 

On December 17, Jupiter and Saturn will be remarkably close together with the thin crescent moon close by. Then a few nights later on December 21, Jupiter and Saturn will be even more spectacularly close together in a conjunction that will not be repeated for more than a decade. The pair will be easily visible together in telescope eyepieces.

By Nerida Langcake
This article appeared in the December 2020 issue of the Mornington Peninsula Magazine.