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Geminid Meteors, Planetary 'Christmas Star,' Solstice Above Oregon / Washington Coast

Published 12/05/20 at 3:55 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Geminid Meteors, Planetary 'Christmas Star,' Solstice Above Oregon / Washington Coast

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(Astoria, Oregon) – An astounding month of astronomical events will be happening in the skies above the Oregon coast and Washington coast in December, with a major meteor shower, two planets forming an unusually bright star, and the winter solstice. (Above: photo composite of planets and Manzanita - photos NASA, Oregon Coast Beach Connection)

Jim Todd, astronomer with Portland's OMSI, described the jaw-dropping sights coming this way, not just to the coastlines but the entire world as well.

Something that hasn't happened in almost 800 years is about to take place in the sky. On December 21, the same day as the Solstice, the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn occurs, bringing the planets the closest together in terms of our point of view since medieval times.

These conjunctions actually happen about every 20 years, where the two planets come so near to each other they form a brilliant star and a double planet. Not since 1226 have they been this close, seen as only 0.1 degree apart.

The next such close conjunction won't happen again until 2080.

It will be so bright that it's been dubbed the “Christmas Star,” partially because scientists think this could be the same phenomena that created the Star of Bethlehem talked about in Bible lore.

All this will be visible from the Oregon and Washington coastlines, and the two gas giants can currently be seen from the beaches approaching each other.

Todd said from Portland's point of view, the Jupiter and Saturn conjunction will be low in the sky just after sunset at 4:30 p.m. and then set quickly, so a good view to the southwest is important. Cape Blanco on the south coast will be excellent for this, as well as Neahkahnie Mountain by Manzanita. If you're in a spot like Seaside, where Tillamook Head is immediately to the south, you may have to drive southward to Cannon Beach.

“Viewed from earth, Jupiter and Saturn will be 0.1 degree apart,” Todd said. “Jupiter will appear brightest at magnitude of -1.97, while Saturn, to the upper right, will be half the brightest at +0.63 magnitude. Far above the southern horizon is the near first quarter moon and red planet Mars.”

Although they'll appear to bump into each other from our point of view, they're actually 455,762,323 miles apart from each other.

Both Saturn and Jupiter are gas giants, meaning they have no real landmass and are simply made of churning gasses of various kinds.

Even sooner, on the mornings of December 13 and 14, Todd said that given clear conditions we'll get to see the peak of the Geminid meteor shower.

“This is the one major shower that provides good activity prior to midnight as the constellation of Gemini is well placed from after 10 p.m. onward,” Todd said. “According to American Meteor Society, expect the shower to peak with as many as 60 to 120 meteors per hour.”

Todd said the Geminids are often bright and intensely colored. Due to their medium-slow velocity, persistent trains are not usually seen.

Also on the astronomy menu for the Pacific Northwest is the winter solstice, happening Monday, December 21 at 2:02 a.m. This is when winter officially begins, and when the Earth's northern pole is tipped away from the sun.

“As seen from Portland, the sun will reach its lowest southern point in the sky at 21 & ½ degrees on the southern horizon on the winter solstice,” Todd said. “Because of the low angle of the sun's arc, it will produce the longest and most spectacular sunrises and sunsets of the year. On December 18-21, we will have nearly 8.5 hours of daylight to enjoy.”

Todd gave Oregon Coast Beach Connection a unique tip about sunsets this time of year along the coastlines of this state and Washington. Because of the low angle of the sun on the ocean horizon, the sun takes just a little bit longer to descend out of sight. This can make for more intense sunset colors if you're looking for a good end-of-day photograph.

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