Every month, AY About You outlines the night sky in these easily digestible guides. And stargazing in December is another one for the books.
This month features local astrophotography from Arkansan Tony Milligan. You can find more of his spectacular photos on his website, Captured in Time.
Third Quarter: Dec. 7
New Moon: Dec. 14
First Quarter: Dec. 21
Full Moon: Dec. 29*
*The full moon of December is often referred to as the Cold Moon, for simply the wintry weather that arrives in the Northern Hemisphere this time of year.
Puppid-Velid Meteor Shower: Dec. 1 to 15
Peak night(s): Dec. 5, 6
The celestial magic of the holiday season begins as soon as the clock strikes 12 this month. The Puppid-Velids kick off December with an annual shower known for around 10 meteors per hour. Look to the constellation Vela just after midnight, or at the most optimal time of about 3 a.m.
Geminids Meteor Shower: Dec. 4 to 17
Peak Night(s): Dec. 13, 14
Otherwise known as the “king” of all meteor showers, the Geminids are the can’t miss opportunity of the month (year). The shower consists of debris from the asteroid 3200 Phaethon and can produce as many as 120 meteors per hour. With the moon at or near its new phase coinciding with the peak nights, the 2020 Geminids will be a shooting star spectacle unlike any other this year. Look to the constellation Gemini just after nightfall; meteors will rain all night long, but the best time to view it will be at around 2 a.m. when the shower’s radiant point is highest in the sky.
Ursid Meteor Shower: Dec. 17 to 25
Peak Night(s): Dec. 21, 22
The Ursids close out this pandemic-plagued year with one final week of shooting stars, which fittingly transpires on the week of Christmas. This is another shower with all-night availability, as its radiant point is the constellation of Ursa Minor, which is circumpolar. The Ursids consists of the comet Tuttle’s dust grains and usually produces around 10 meteors per hour. Look to Ursa Minor after the sun sets; peak activity is expected around 3 a.m.
Planets and Special Events
Dec. 21: December Solstice
The shortest day of 2019 will occur on Dec. 21, known as the December solstice (or winter solstice) — the last of the four main stops on the earth’s yearly orbit around the sun.
Dec. 21: Rare Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn
As dazzling as a month with three meteor showers already is, this rarity is going to steal the show. Our system’s two largest planets are going to arrive at the closest relative conjunction (alignment) that we’ve seen for nearly 800 years. This Jupiter/Saturn conjunction happens every two decades or so, but very rarely this close. The pair will form a “double planet” to us on earth, so to speak — appearing as one point of light to the naked eye, and within the same view field of a telescope or binoculars.
The last time this happened was in the year 1226; the next time won’t be until 2080.
In the News
Look up at the night sky and, if you’re away from city lights, you’ll see stars. The space between those bright points of light is, of course, filled with inky blackness.
Some astronomers have wondered about that all that dark space — about how dark it really is.
No public events this month. Stay home and stay well.
If you’re still itching for more space to curb your boredom this month, give Celestia and Stellarium a try. Both are free to use and provide unique and interactive experiences with the stars, planets and more.
The best stargazing results are always going to be under the darkest of skies. So, if you can, find a place as far away from city lights as possible when stargazing in December.