A 3D model of the different faces of the near-Earth asteroid, Toutatis. Don't worry, by 'near-Earth' we mean seven million miles.

Credit: NASA

A Stargazer's Guide to December 2012

December 7, 2012

Most of the news we cover here at WGBH occurs here on Earth. That's fair. But, in reality, the third planet from the sun is only an infinitesimally tiny fraction of the story. What about all of the things that are happening up there in the great beyond?

Sky and Telescope Magazine senior contributing editor Kelly Beatty stopped by the Boston Public Radio studios to talk us through some interstellar news, from near-Earth asteroids to life on Mars. Even the end of the world. Here are a few highlights: 

There has been a lot of talk about wild astronomical events—even the end of the world—coming when the Mayan long count calendar ends as the Winter solstice arrives on December 21, 2012. Does the Mayan calendar ending mean anything?
"We deal in terms of centuries and millennia. Their longest unit of time was something called the long count which was 5,126 years long. In their culture, creation happened about the year 3114 BC, so you add those to together and you get 2012. The fact that it's December 21 [the Winter Solstice] is just pure coincidence...they never ever would have intended for this to be the end of the world. " 

Did the Mayans use the stars to calculate time?
"In a word, no. However they were both really expert at keeping track of time and really expert sky watchers at a time—we're talking around 200 to 900 AD here it was the  Dark Ages in Europe—and yet here in the Western Hemi was this enlightened civilization...they knew that Venus returns to the exact spot in the sky every 584 days, they had but as far as we know they weren't using their calendar to predict astronomical events in that sense."

So what does happen when the solstice comes on December 21?
"The solstice is the unofficial beginning of winter. It is an indication that the Northern Hemisphere of the Earth is tipped away from the sun as much is its going to be. The days are shortest, the sun is low in the sky... [so] there is a lot of religious and folk mythology wrapped around that solstice. A lot of the legends speak to the beginning of the better days after the solstice. There is probably good reason that Christmas is timed to be near the time of solstice. And just so you know, the solstice occurs on December 21, at 6:21 AM Eastern Time, and that means the days from that point forward will start getting longer. Big thumbs up to that."

Anything interesting happening in the skies between now and then?
"There's a small asteroid, Toutatis, that's just a couple of miles across. It's what's called an Earth crosser—one of a couple of thousand of large asteroids that are somehow in a position to maybe someday collide with Earth. This one will not. It's passing about seven million miles away, very safely away. But it's in a special orbit that brings it back near the Earth every four years. For backyard watchers, don't worry, it's going to be way to faint to find, but the Chinese have a space craft, Chang-e 2, that will be passing within a couple of hundred miles of this asteroid on December 11 and we hope to send back some really nice close-range pictures." 

Are there some things that backyard watchers can see?
"As it gets dark at night, turn in the direction opposite where the sun sets and look halfway up. You cannot miss the planet Jupiter. It is the brightest thing in the sky. That big bright star is not a star, it's the planet Jupiter. So if you have any kind of optical equipment—good binoculars, a small telescope—you can resolve Jupiter as a little white spot (not just a point of light) and also you might be able to make out the four largest moons—called the Galilean satellites—to either side of it, which are the ones that Galileo discovered and made famous in 1609-1610."

How about stars?
"To the side of Jupiter, not very far, if you've got good dark skies, you'll see a fuzzy little patch. Those are actually the stars of the Pleiades star cluster which is beautiful in any pair of binoculars. They're like little diamonds on black velvet. In Japanese it's called Subaru. And if you think about it, the logo for Subaru cars is a stylized star cluster, so there you go." 

OK, so we have a bright planet, some twinkling stars...anything else? 
"On the night of December 13, that's a Thursday, we have a really nice meteor shower coming up called the Geminid meteor shower. Begining at about 10 o clock we might see, if you're in a good dark spot, one meteor per minute all night long. The Geminids are one of the two or three very best meteor showers all year long and because there is no moon in the sky right at that time, it should be a good show."

You say that the viewing is best "if you're in a good dark spot." Any tips for good places to star gaze?
"Well, all astronomical viewing at night is compromised by light pollution which is really too bad. To paraphrase the late great Tip O'Neill, 'all light pollution is local,' so [try to] get away from your local shopping center or security lighting around a school. Any park that has just a little clearing, like a baseball diamond, that you can go crawl out into the middle of and shield yourself from the bright lights around you would be good. If you're stuck at home, go into your backyard and find a spot where there are no bright lights directly in your view." 

Kelly Beatty is the senior contributing editor for Sky and Telescope Magazine. Hear his take on manned missions to the moon, the possibility of life on Mars and more by listening to his entire interview:

And, just for good measure, as long as we are talking about outer space, check out this movie trailer from 1977:

And this song, from the inimitable Sun Ra:

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