Backyard astronomers had plenty to see within the last few days on December 13-16, as both the Geminid meteor shower and Comet 46P made their appearances.

The meteors get their name from the Gemini constellation, which they appear to be radiating from.

Local Astronomy Educator James Durbano says the meteor shower is an annual event and a dazzling sight to behold.

"Every year in the middle of December, the earth passes through the debris left behind by a comet. Those little bits of debris rain down on earth and as they hit the atmosphere, they burn up and vaporize and leave a bright streak of light across the sky. This is often called 'shooting stars' but more properly called meteors. These meteors seem to come from the Gemini constellation, hence it's name."

There's no need to worry about dodging any space debris, as Durbano says, these small particles evaporate in our atmosphere at incredible speeds.

"The debris left behind by a comet are usually really small, typically the size of a grain of rice, or sand. There's a fair bit of material in terms of numbers, but it hits the earth's atmosphere at about 130,000 kilometres per hour and at that speed it doesn't take long for an object of that size to burn up and vaporize. So there's no worry about the material coming all the way down to the ground, but it does put on a pretty good light show for those who spend some time looking up."

comet 46p path dec16 2018 001Comet 46P Wirtanen was most visible on December 16, just off the Taurus constellation. (Images provided by James Durbano & Big Sky Astronomical Society)

The Geminids are joined this month by the wayward Comet 46P, that will pass through the Taurus constellation and the Pleiades star cluster (Also known as the Seven Sisters or it's Japanese name: Subaru).

Durbano says, this comet is a semi regular visitor to earth's orbit and follows a pretty interesting path around our solar system.

"So this comet goes around the sun every 5.4 years, so it's a short period comet that goes around pretty frequently. It just so happens that this year, the Earth and the comet are relatively close together. So Comet 46P goes around the sun and then it travels around the orbit of Jupiter and then back again."

So will you be able to catch a glimpse of our semi regular visitor?

Durbano says it all depends on how cloudy the sky is and the tools you use to view it.

"Whether or not we see it all depends on the clouds, which will block the view. It's bright enough to be seen with your eyes, but it's not extremely bright, so it's not going to jump out at you, you'll need to look carefully to spot it. If you have binoculars it'll be easier to spot. It will kind of look like a little fuzzy star, maybe slightly greenish as it appears if you photograph it."

comet 46p dec16 2018 001From our view on Earth, Comet 46-P emits a fuzzy greenish glow. (Images provided by James Durbano & Big Sky Astronomical Society)

So what's next in the world of Astronomy?

Durbano says, next month we'll have a total lunar eclipse.

"It'll be wonderful, as long as it's not cloudy! So what will happen on Sunday January 20 2019, the full moon will enter the earth's shadow. Anyone who is looking up, will see the full moon slowly get covered up by the earths shadow. Once the moon is fully into the shadow, it'll take on a reddish colour, which will last an hour or so. Then the moon will move out of the earth's shadow, so you'll see it creep across the face of the full moon."

You can follow James Durbano on Twitter @astronomer4hire and visit his website here.


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