Shooting stars to light up Irish sky


People throughout history have looked to the skies for portents during troubled times, and those looking from the gutter to the stars later tonight are in for a treat as a meteor phenomenon reaches its peak while Jupiter and the Moon appear near each other in the sky.

The Geminid meteor shower, which peaks tonight, is the best shooting star display of the year, according to David Moore, chairman of Astronomy Ireland. The meteor shower will go on all night, with spotters able to avail of the long period of darkness at this time of year, although Mr Moore said more shooting stars would be seen toward dawn or by those getting up early in the morning.

The peak in meteor activity tonight will see some 20 times more than average, or up to 100 an hour from the normal five- to six-an-hour rate. Astronomy Ireland is asking people across the country to watch out for the shooting stars, record how many they see every 15 minutes and notify the organisation of their findings.

"Even if there are only breaks in the clouds, people can see the meteors all over the sky," Mr Moore said, adding a telescope was not required.

Geminids are unusual because the tiny grain-sized fragments in the show come from an object thought to be an asteroid, a rocky body formed from the dead nucleus of a comet, rather than from a passing “dirty snowball” comet. Earth runs into a stream of debris from the object, named Phaethon, around this time every year, with the tracks of the meteors pointing back to the Gemini constellation.

Jupiter, one of brightest objects in the sky, and the Moon will also be in conjunction - appearing to be near each other - although the planet is some half a billion miles away from the Earth, compared to some quarter of a million miles in the Moon's case. "This is a fantastic sight with the naked eye, but people should get their telescopes out, as the Moon and Jupiter are the two best objects to view in a telescope at night," Mr Moore said. "Anyone who doesn't know the sky well, they'll know on Monday night where the planet Jupiter is, a brilliant star just below the Moon."

Later this month, there will be further celestial pageantry in the form of a lunar eclipse on the winter solstice, December 21st, when the northern hemisphere has its least number of daylight hours. A lunar eclipse happens when the moon's orbit takes it through the shadow of the Earth, which is then between it and the Sun.

The eclipse will start from 6.30am, when a "bite" is taken out of the left side of the Moon, and the Earth's satellite will be totally inside the Earth's shadow at about 7.40am, with the middle of the eclipse coming at about 8.18am. The Sun will rise from about 8.50am on the east coast, with those on the west coast able to obtain a lingering view of the lunar eclipse.

Tonight will also see Astronomy Ireland holding its Christmas lecture in Trinity College, Dublin, at 8pm. The speaker on the role of Astronomy, is Dr Ian Corbett, general secretary of the International Astronomical Union, or, in the words of Mr Moore: "astronomy's answer to the pope".