Stars of wonder: Christmas meteors Geminids light up the sky this weekend


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Those up late this weekend preparing for Christmas will be rewarded with a truly biblical display of colourful shooting stars.

This weekend one of the brightest meteor showers will be lighting up our skies. The Geminids are visible to the naked eye and observers in New Zealand will need no equipment to see them.

Like something out the Nativity story, the Geminids are also known as the “King of Meteor Showers” for their large tails which appear to burn in a variety of colours – from yellow, blue and red.

Those wishing to see the meteors should look north east near the constellation Gemini, from which the meteors get their name.

However, amateur astronomers will have to stay up late for the full display. The shower peaks at around 3am with between 10 to 30 meteors an hour.

Josh Kirkley, an Astronomy Educator at the Auckland Stardome observatory, has some advice for amateur stargazers.

“The best time to see this shower is around 3am on Saturday (15 December), when it peaks in our skies. The meteors will originate from the constellation Gemini which will be due north at 3am on Saturday. You can expect to see up to 20 an hour during the peak, being in a dark clear area without light pollution.”

Another stellar object in our skies at the moment is the Comet Wirtanen. This Christmas comet is one of the closest and brightest to pass in 70 years.

Passing every five years the space rock takes on a blue-green glow which is visible to the naked eye. But, bring binoculars to see the effect most clearly.

“Comet Wirtanen is also visible to us in New Zealand. It is currently in our skies almost all night, and will be visible right after sunset when it gets dark. It is currently passing by the Matariki cluster in the north-east.”

You’ll want to head out of town to an area of low light pollution to see this ghostly phenomenon more clearly.

Muriwai: West Auckland's black sand beaches offer perfect dark skies for stargazing. Photo / Getty Images
Muriwai: West Auckland’s black sand beaches offer perfect dark skies for stargazing. Photo / Getty Images

Why not stop off under a starry sky at one of these four Auckland astrological locations?

Best dark sky spots

Here are our star destinations for gazing skywards, all within two hours of Auckland

Piha

50 minutes

Out west, Auckland’s black-sand beaches have equally dark skies which are perfect for star spotting.

The seaside location helps give an unrivalled horizon and an uninterrupted view of the night sky. Just steer clear of the rocks and the surf. Stars aren’t the only things prone to falling here.

Tawharanui

1hour 15minutes

In the Tawharanui reserve you’ll have the night skies to yourself and the odd Takahe.
Only 20 minutes from Leigh and 10 from the excellent Leigh Sawmill Brewery, why not make an evening of it?

Camping is available at the Takatu Road site from $15 per person and $6 per child.
aucklandcouncil.govt.nz/parks-recreation/

Waiheke Island

1hour 40 minutes

Just 40km out of the city, the skies above Auckland’s holiday island seem like a world away. The Island offers unrivalled views of the night sky and very little light pollution, with just a sparkle from few vineyards and holiday homes.

Make sure you have plans for over-nighting on the island as the last Fullers ferry departs at 11.45pm on Saturday night and won’t resume service until 7am.

Stardome Observatory, Cornwall park

5 minutes

If you really can’t get out of the city there is always the Auckland Observatory – the Star Dome is the perfect way to get your head around the constellations with experts on hand. There’s also a chance to have a closer look through the telescopes.

Access to the courtyard telescopes is complimentary after the 8pm show. You may not need to go anywhere after all.

stardome.org.nz


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