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Winter Solstice. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/people/robef/">Rob Faulkner</a>, CC <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en">some rights reserved</a>
Winter Solstice. Photo: Rob Faulkner, CC some rights reserved

An appreciation for the darkest days of the year

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Aileen O'Donoghue, who teaches astronomy and physics at St. Lawrence University, loves this time of year, when the sun sets early and rises late. She shares her enthusiasm with Martha Foley, and talks about some of the events of the ext couple of weeks.

The waning crescent moon meets Spica, Saturn and Mercury at sunrise in the next few days. And a winter meteor shower, the Geminids, peaks Dec.13. And then, there's the winter solstice coming up Dec. 21.

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Martha Foley
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The earliest sunset this year will be this Sunday, December 9 at 4:20 p.m. Days around the winter solstice don’t feel very long or sunny because the sun only gets 22 degrees above the horizon, says O'Donoghue. It makes 12 pm feel like late in the afternoon.

However, there is much to enjoy in the night sky this time of year. We are now moving into the waning crescent moon stage, which will be visible in the morning sky. It will be easy to see, as dawn isn’t until 7:30 am Sunday morning.

The star Spica will also be on view Sunday morning before 6:30 to 7:00 a.m. On Monday morning, December 10, Spica will be right next to Saturn. After that, Saturn will start to move eastward away from Spica. Tuesday morning will show an even thinner crescent moon, with Venus above and Mercury below. O’Donoghue said it should look very pretty, as long as visibility is good.

Next will come the Geminids meteor shower, which peaks on the night of December 13/14, and can be seen all over the sky. Instruments now see around 120 meteors per minute during the peak, said O'Donoghue, a huge increase from 20 only a hundred or so years ago. However, that doesn’t mean the naked eye will see all of them. You will see only a couple a minute with the naked eye. The shower can start being seen as early as this weekend. The best time to look for Geminids meteors will be after midnight.

The sky above Tupper Lake's ESE horizon at 10 pm on December 13, 2012. Jupiter has moved outside the V of the Bull's horns. The radiant of the Geminid Meteor shower is near the bright star Castor, on the boundary of the Winter Hexagon. The shower is expected to peak after midnight on December 14. Made using Starry Night software.
The sky above Tupper Lake's ESE horizon at 10 pm on December 13, 2012. Jupiter has moved outside the V of the Bull's horns. The radiant of the Geminid Meteor shower is near the bright star Castor, on the boundary of the Winter Hexagon. The shower is expected to peak after midnight on December 14. Made using Starry Night software.
Most meteor showers result when the Earth is moving through debris from a comet. However in this case, it is not a comet, but a very large rock that circles the sun every 1.4 years within the orbit of Mercury, said O'Donoghue. The theory is that debris is still coming off the rock due to its close encounter with the sun, which heated it up to the point where rocks start to burst off from its surface. But the Geminids shower is too large to be fully explained by the theory, and so remains somewhat of a mystery.

The winter solstice will be Friday, December 21 at 6:12 am EST. This is the moment when the sun is furthest to the south in its annual track, making that day the shortest of the year.

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