By Marty Russell
OK, how many of you, like me, are dreaming of a balmy, 70-degree Christmas with sunshine and blue skies as opposed to a white Christmas? I thought so. It sounds good in the carol and looks good on Christmas cards but it’s just too darn cold right now for a proper Southern Christmas. This is Mississippi, not Minnesota.
I stepped outside Monday night to try and catch a glimpse of the Geminid meteor shower which peaked Monday but will continue to produce shooting stars for another night or so to a diminishing degree and all I caught was frostbite. It was too cold to stand outside, even bundled up like the kid from “A Christmas Story.” I didn’t see a single meteor in the few minutes I braved outside but then maybe it was so cold that the rocky, superheated meteors were turning into icy, cold comets as they fell. But one upside to the cold weather is that the sky was super clear and the stars shone brilliantly without any haze in the sky.
Let’s hope it stays that way for another week or so although most of us would like to be able to feel our toes again. That’s because, on the first official day of winter this year, next Tuesday, North America will experience its first total lunar eclipse in about three years. On Dec. 21, the winter solstice and, coincidentally, the same day in 2012 the Mayans predicted the Earth will come to an end, the moon will be eclipsed by the Earth’s shadow and disappear for about an hour. Because total eclipses can only occur when the moon is full and because when the moon is full it rises at sunset and sets at sunrise, this year’s eclipse should be well placed for viewing from anywhere in North America which, for the geographically impaired, includes Mississippi.
That’s because the eclipse is scheduled to begin about 1:41 a.m. which means the moon will be almost directly overhead. It is supposed to last until 2:53 a.m. and totality, the period when the moon is completely obscured by the Earth’s shadow, is expected to last about 72 minutes. It should be a field day for any Druids out there celebrating the winter solstice, assuming they’re wearing long johns under those robes.
Consider it an early, celestial Christmas present, the star of Bethleham in reverse. Instead of a new, bright star appearing in the sky, the bright, full moon will disappear. By the way the jury is still out on just what the star of Bethleham was, if it even existed. Some astronomers believe it was a conjunction of planets, most likely Jupiter, Saturn and Mars, while others believe it was a supernova, an exploding star, which was recorded by the Chinese in roughly the same time period.
So get out and enjoy it but be sure and take along plenty of antifreeze. It will be the last total lunar eclipse visible here until April 15, 2014 unless the Mayans were right, then it might be the last ever.
Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 222 Farley Hall, University MS 38677 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.