December looks like a fun month for stargazers, with a spectacular meteor shower promised for the middle of the month — clear skies permitting, of course.
Known as the Geminids, the meteor shower occurs annually as Earth moves through the trail of debris left behind by asteroid 3200 Phaethon.
These thrilling “shooting star” events will be visible from Dec. 4 to Dec. 17, with activity peaking on the evening of Dec. 13 and into the following morning.
“The Geminids produce a good number of meteors most years, but they’re made even better this year as the shower’s peak coincides with a nearly new moon. thus making for darker skies, with no moonlight to interfere with the fainter meteors,” NASA said.
For the best possible viewing experience, NASA recommends heading to a spot well away from bright city lights to ensure that urban light pollution doesn’t get in the way. Lie flat on the ground with your feet pointing south, look up to the night sky, watch, and wait (but don’t fall asleep).
If you’re interested, Digital Trends has some great tips on how to photograph a meteor shower.
Jupiter and Saturn
Jupiter and Saturn also get a look-in this month, with the first three weeks of December offering a chance to see the two planets move closer in the sky than they’ve appeared in two decades.
NASA suggests looking for Jupiter and Saturn in the southwest in the hour after sunset, adding, “On December 21st, the two giant planets will appear just a tenth of a degree apart — that’s about the thickness of a dime held at arm’s length.”
You can view both planets with the naked eye, but their apparent closeness also means they’ll be visible in the same field of view through binoculars or a small telescope.
“This event is called a ‘great conjunction,’” NASA explained. “These occur every 20 years this century as the orbits of Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn periodically align making these two outer planets appear close together in our nighttime sky.”
Finally, the December solstice occurs on day 21 of this month. In the Northern Hemisphere this is the winter solstice, and in the Southern Hemisphere it’s — you guessed it — the summer solstice. Those in the Northern Hemisphere will also know December 21 as the shortest day in terms of daylight hours, while for those in the Southern Hemisphere it’s … you guessed again.
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