Solstice, meteor shower and Christmas wish

By Tom Burns - Stargazing

In the coming days, two events conspire to remind us that we are all hurtling through space on a planet called Earth. One is the winter solstice, which occurs precisely on Wednesday, Dec. 21, at 4:47 p.m.

The day of the solstice has the shortest period of daylight of any day of the year.

However, at that magic solstice moment, the sun stops its southern motion and begins to travel north.

As a result, old Sol rises higher in the sky every day. The number of daylight hours incrementally increases by a few minutes every day. We may have a long, cold winter ahead, but the solstice embodies the promise of spring.

Even as winter begins, we celebrate that promise throughout the world as the western Christmas, the Jewish Chanukah, the African-American Kwanzaa, the Germanic Yule, the Iranian Yalda, the Hopi Soyal, the Scandinavian St. Lucia’s Day, the Chinese Dong Zhi, the Zuni Shalako, the Japanese Toji, the Hawaiian Makahiki, and the Zulu Umkhosi Wokweshwama.

Such celebrations have occurred for almost as long as we have been human. The western Christmas celebration has some of its origins in the Roman Saturnalia and the German Yule. And all our celebrations are rooted in solstice harvest festivals that predate written history.

The second notable event is the annual return of the year’s best meteor display, the Geminid meteor shower.

As you read these lines, Earth is passing through a cloud of dust and debris left by 3200 Phaethon, a strange object that is part asteroid and part comet. Its composition is primarily rocky, making it an asteroid.

However, its orbit is more like a comet. At its farthest point from the sun, it travels past the orbit of Mars. At its closest point, it passes very close to the sun — well within the orbit of Mercury.

The sun’s energy releases a large quantity of dust from Phaethon. Earth passes right through that cloud of debris at the astonishing speed of 67,000 miles per hour as it orbits the sun.

We often say that the particles enter Earth’s atmosphere, but that is a slight misunderstanding. Those particles are mostly just sitting there minding their own dusty business when fate in the form of a careening planet dives into them.

As the particles rub violently against the Earth’s atmosphere, they heat the air around themselves and leave the characteristic streaks we call meteors or “shooting stars.”

We are not seeing the particles burn up. We see the hot, ionized air around them as they burn up.

The Perseid shower in August has a reputation for being the best meteor shower of the year. However, that reputation is mostly a matter of convenience. August is warmer and generally clearer than December.

The Geminids are a better shower by far if we can arrange a rare, late-autumn night without clouds. For one thing, the nights are longer in December. More significantly, the Geminid cloud contains a higher density of meteor-making detritus than the Perseids.

Earth takes about ten days to pass through the cloud, but we pass through the thickest part of it during the evening and morning of Dec. 13/14.

In most years, the Geminids peak between 2 and 3 a.m. Typically, you’ll see the most meteors after local midnight on Dec. 15. After midnight, our location on Earth turns into the direction of its orbit, and more meteor-causing particles are crashing into Earth’s atmosphere at higher velocities. Under a dark, rural sky, you may see as many as 120 meteors per hour during the peak hour.

This year on Dec. 13, a bright waning gibbous moon will rise around 9 p.m. and won’t set until well after sunrise on the 14th. A bright moon in the sky is usually a dealbreaker when it comes to meteor showers.

The Geminids might be the exception to the rule. Because of the moon, we might only see 40-50 meteors during the peak hour instead of the usual 120. I can live with that.

If it is clear that night, travel away from the city lights to a dark, rural location. Dress warmly, and prepare to observe all night.

Look away from the moon. Also, try to look in the direction least light-polluted by distant towns and cities. Meteors will appear over the entire sky.

If a Yuletide miracle happens, and we get a clear sky that night, please take a kid or three with you. I know. It’s way past their bedtime. At my age, it’s way past my bedtime. Take them anyway.

Who among us does not remember the first time they saw a shooting star? A few meteors will create an indelible memory. Perhaps they will develop an interest in science. Or maybe they will develop a lifelong interest in stargazing or astronomy.

But even if they don’t, you have given them a mind-expanding glimpse of their larger world. And that’s a gift they will remember all the rest of their days.

Above all, remember that life is tragically short, no matter how long a person lives. Perhaps those kids will live another 90 years and inspire the lives of others. Or perhaps they will succumb to disease or famine or, most tragically, our hatred toward each other.

Perhaps, like meteors, they will flash briefly and brilliantly across the firmament. Then they will be gone, their lives but a shimmering instant in a cosmos old beyond measure.

The best holiday gift we can provide them is not a new PlayStation or a bigger-screen TV. It is simply to be there.

We must try our best to provide our children with safe shelter against disease, hunger, and inhumanity that curses our species. We must keep them warm, feed them, and protect them against war and other inhuman human frailties.

But after those duties are complete, we must feed their souls with love and knowledge. Hunger and deprivation will break their bodies. Loneliness, lovelessness, and ignorance will break their spirits.

The old Christmas carol reminds us that we must provide them with “comfort and joy.” So do something special with a child this holiday season.

Ice skate. Walk around the neighborhood and sing carols. Show them the stars. Dance with joy that they and you are still on the planet.

COVID-19, RSV, and the winter flu remind us of the fragility of life. Recent political events remind us that hate and political obstinacy divide us deeply. The long, cold winter seems destined to last a very long time.

What we must not do is hate our political and philosophical adversaries. Hate and unreasoned anger are diseases far worse than COVID-19 or the flu.

They infect our behavior toward others, of course. But worse, they infect the next generation, who learn to hate from our hateful example. We are thus duty-bound to infect our children with love and reason.

We must, all of us, dedicate ourselves to showing those children the wonder and majesty of the universe they live in and are integrally a part of, not just in its mind-bending totality but in all of its tiny details. There is as much profound meaning in a child’s joyful laugh or a single human tear of mourning as there is in the whole universe.

The greatest gift you can give to yourself is knowing that they will remember your love for them when you are gone.

Merry Christmas. Happy holidays. Joyous Kwanzaa. Shalom. As-salaam Alaykum. Pax vobiscum. Namaste.

Whatever your faith or philosophy, may your winter-solstice celebration be filled with peace, joy, and freedom from fear. May you spend it thinking of those you love if you cannot be with them. And may they be thinking of you.

Meteor showers like the Geminids remind us of our place in the universe. We are all huddled together on a speck of rock, a tiny spacecraft, a fragile lifeboat, an island of beauty careening through a dark and deadly void.

The Christian Bible entreats us to love our neighbors. As our behavior increasingly affects all the passengers on spaceship Earth, everyone becomes our neighbor.

We are all members of the same race, the human race. Don’t you think it’s time we start acting like it?

By Tom Burns


Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.