Night skies over Jersey getting more active to end 2020
The peak of the Orionid meteor shower just passed in New Jersey last week, but throughout the rest of the fall there are plenty of events to look forward to in the sky in the Garden State, even ones you can see with the naked eye.
That, or a wide-view pair of binoculars, may be the preferred way to look at meteor showers, according to Eric Gawiser, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Rutgers University.
"They move very quickly across the sky, and so you don't know ahead of time where they're going to be, so you don't want to have the magnification of a telescope with a correspondingly small field of view, because you'll just miss them," Gawiser said.
Gawiser called it a "lucky coincidence" that this time of year is prime sky-watching time in New Jersey, as meteor showers are simply fields of dust stirred up by comets that have previously passed through Earth's orbit. Accordingly, we reach that particular location of our orbit every 365 days.
Of course, the time of night and the direction in which you are looking both matter a great deal, not always an easy combination to get right in a dense state with both light pollution and forestation in abundance.
"The key tool, in a sense, to use is to find a dark site with good visibility," Gawiser said. "That is easier said than done in the lovely Garden State of New Jersey."
The next meteor shower to peak in New Jersey will be the Leonid, most visible from Nov. 16 to 27, when a new moon will provide the darkest sky conditions.
After that, Gawiser said to watch out for a rare "conjunction" of two planets, Jupiter and Saturn, which are never close to each other in the real world, but will appear so around the time of the winter solstice.
It's the first time those two planets will seem to be in such close proximity in the sky since 1623.
Gawiser suggests downloading the free Stellarium software to help you locate the planets, which are visible even now.
"As the weeks pass by, Saturn's going to be closer and closer to Jupiter until they're practically on top of each other on Dec. 21," he said.
Even without the software, or any high-tech tools, getting a chance to see something for the first time in almost 400 years may put some of the events of 2020 in perspective.
"As much as we may be in a time of turmoil down here on Earth, things are really progressing for the rest of our solar system and galaxy the way they've been for thousands and billions of years, so maybe we can take some solace in that," Gawiser said.