Looking skyward: Celestial events to keep your eyes on this semester

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Hannah Cooper/File

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As the fall semester is now upon us and the Perseid meteor shower has passed, it’s time to look skyward to the celestial events that will light up the sky this semester. Stargazing can be a great way to decompress, so mark your calendars for the comets, constellations, meteors and moons that will brighten your nights in the coming months.

Meteors and comets

Meteors and comets constitute a large part of the celestial scene. For a refresher, a comet is a body of rock, ice and dust that orbits the sun. Meteors are pieces of rock or metal that have been broken off asteroids or comets and fall toward the Earth.

The season’s first major astronomical event will be in October: the Orionids meteor shower. The shower will reach its peak Oct. 21, but the so-called shooting stars will be visible starting about Oct. 16 and lasting until about Oct. 30. During that time, there will be a waxing gibbous moon, which may make for a brighter sky and subpar viewing. Scientists have predicted a rate of roughly 20 meteors per hour, and this shower is known to have meteors that are especially fast.

November will bring another meteor shower — the Leonids  — which will peak Nov. 17-18. According to campus astronomy professor Jessica Lu, this will be an “average shower.” The shower will produce roughly 15 meteors per hour at the peak of the shower, radiating from the Leo constellation. While the Leonids may be less abundant than August’s Perseid shower (which averaged about 100 meteors per hour) or the Orionids, the waxing gibbous moon will set about midnight, resulting in good early-morning viewing conditions.

In mid-December, there is a possibility of a naked-eye comet sighting, as comet 46P/Wirtanen reaches its orbit’s perihelion, or closest point to earth. According to campus doctoral student Carina Cheng, the comet will likely be visible Dec. 12, near the Taurus constellation. This is a short-period comet, with an orbital period of about 5.4 years, and is likely to be the brightest comet since C/2011 L4 in April 2013. It also has a campus connection — it was discovered by Carl Wirtanen, an astronomer at the Lick Observatory, which is managed by the University of California.

The Geminids meteor shower will be the big cheese of the fall schedule, producing up to 120 multicolored meteors per hour, according to Lu. Meteors will be visible from Dec. 7 to Dec. 17, and it will peak about Dec. 13-14. This is just about the time frame of finals week, so the shower could be a good chance for a well-deserved break from exams. The moon will be in first quarter and will set about midnight, and optimal viewing will be slightly past midnight. The meteors will radiate from the Gemini constellation.

The night sky

There will be four full moons this semester: the Sturgeon Moon on Aug. 26, the Harvest Moon on Sept. 24 (the closest full moon to the fall equinox, which occurs Sept. 22), the Hunter’s Moon on Oct. 24 and the Beaver Moon on Nov. 23. Fall is also an optimal time to see a number of constellations, including a few zodiac familiars: Aquarius, Aries and Pisces. Constellations in the Perseus family will also be visible, including Andromeda, Perseus, Cassiopeia and Pegasus, among others.

An option for stargazing this semester is the UC Berkeley astronomy department’s Astro Nights, which occur on the first Thursday of each month and include a lecture and stargazing period. Additionally, although it no longer hosts stargazing, the Lawrence Hall of Science’s planetarium is a great option to learn more about the stars. The San Francisco Amateur Astronomers group also offers a list of dark sky sites in the East Bay, which factor in the absence of light pollution.

Camryn Bell is the special issues editor. Contact her at [email protected]