While December is a month of extremes – cold and dark in the northern hemisphere and opposite in the southern – it’s also one of the best months of the year for amateur astronomers and stargazers. In 2019, there is a plethora of astronomical events and sights to see in the December night sky. From meteor showers to eclipses and even an interstellar visitor… make time this month to get out and enjoy the stars.
If you need equipment to help you view some of this month’s events, consider investing in one of our recommended telescopes for every budget. These make a great holiday gift!
Read on for all of the December night sky events you can see in the coming month!
All of December – Interstellar Comet 2I/Borisov Visible for Observation
In December, anyone with a good pair of binoculars will be able to view the second interstellar object ever identified. Comet 2I/Borisov will reach perihelion on December 8th, and make its closest approach to earth on December 28th. For this reason, it earned the moniker of “Christmas Comet.” However, it’s official name, 2I/Borisov, comes from being the second interstellar (2I) comet discovered by amateur astronomer Gennadiy Borisov.
Given that the full moon occurs on December 12th, try to spot Borisov early in December or toward the end of the month. Astronomers say that Borisov may be visible until September 2020 though, with the right equipment! To try and spot Comet Borisov, look for the constellation Cassiopeia. Learn more about 2I/Borisov on Wikipedia.
December 2 – Peak of the Pheonicid Meteor Shower
While December is best known for two other meteor showers – the highly active Geminids mid-month and the lesser but still impressive Ursids in late December – the first meteor shower of the month is actually on the night of December 2nd. On this night, the Phoenicid Meteor Shower peaks with only a small number of meteors per hour.
For most viewers in North America, the Phoenicids will be below the horizon and not visible. This is because the radiant point in the constellation Phoenix is best visible from nearer the equator and the southern hemisphere. For stargazers in Central and South America, Southern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Oceania, this is a fun chance to try and spot a different meteor shower this month.
December 6 – Peak of the φ-Cassiopeid Meteor Shower
If you’re trying to spot Comet Borisov, consider planning a night on December 6th. This night is also the peak of the φ-Cassiopeid meteor shower which is right in the same part of the sky as Comet Borisov may be spotted.
To try and spot φ-Cassiopeid meteors, look for the radiant point in the constellation of Cassiopeia in the sky. You may spot only a few meteors per hour from this point. Based on the earth’s rotation on the night of December 6th, the majority may be short-tailed as the enter right “at” us.
Unfortunately, the moon continues to move toward full phase on December 12th. It will likely start to intrude with stargazing and meteor-spotting from December 6th onward.
December 7 – Peak of the Puppid-Velid Meteor Shower
Are you tired of meteor showers yet? On December 7th there’s yet another meteor shower at its peak: the little-known Puppid-Velid meteor shower. Radiating from a point between the Puppis and Vela constellations in the sky, you can potentially spot a few meteors meteors per hour this night. For the best odds, plan to be out stargazing between midnight and 3:00am local time.
December 9 – Peak of the Monocerotid Meteor Shower
For southern hemisphere stargazers, here’s another meteor shower for you! For teh whole night of December 9th, look for meteors from the radaiant point in Monoceros. The best meteor-spotting prospects will be between 1:00am and 3:00am local time.
December 12 – Peak of the σ-Hydrid Meteor Shower & LMC is Well-Placed
There are two astronomical events of interest on the night of December 12th. The first one is a good option for northern hemisphere viewers; the second for those in the southern hemisphere. Unfortunately, the moon is full on this night. It’s up to you whether you try to spot these events when there’s so much light pollution.
First, December 12th is the peak of yet another meteor shower in December: the σ-Hydrid meteor shower. On this night, you can spot a few meteors per hour from the radiant point in the constellation Hydra. The best time to try and spot meteors will be in the pre-dawn hours from 2:00am to 5:00am, local time, on the morning of 13th. However, you should be able to see some meteors after sunset on December 12th.
Second, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) will be well-placed for observation on the night of December 12th. It will reach the highest point in the sky around midnight local time for southern hemisphere viewers.
December 14 – Peak of the Geminid Meteor Shower
If you haven’t seen any of the meteor showers so far month, December 14th is the night for it! On this night, the Geminid meteor shower will peak with up to 120 meteors per hour – it’s a great show!
Look for meteors coming from the constellation of Gemini. Use the bright stars of Castor and Pollux to spot the constellation in the Northeastern sky (for most viewers). Meteor activity is expected to peak around 11:00pm local time. While the moon will be just two days past full and 90% illuminated, it’s still a great time to get out and enjoy the December night sky.
December 15 – NGC 1981 is Well-Placed & Close Approach of the Moon & M44
On the 15th, stargazers can look for two more astronomical sights in the December night sky. Both are a good opportunity to spot deep space objects!
The open star custer NGC 1981, located in Orion, will be well-placed for viewing. It will reach its highest point around midnight local time. While you can spot NGC 1981 with the naked eye in a very dark sky location, it’s better viewed with binoculars or a telescope.
Similarly, M44 (the Beehive Cluster) will be easier to spot than usual as it makes a close approach with the moon on the night of December 15th. While the moon will be bright at 85% illumination, you can wait until they reach their highest point in the southern sky in the pre-dawn hours of December 15th for the moment of closest approach.
December 16 – Peak of the Comae Berenicid Meteor Shower
For most northern hemisphere viewers, the Comae Berenicid meteor shower will be below the horizon. Southern hemisphere stargazers can enjoy this meteor shower at its peak on the night of December 16th. On this night, you can see up to 3 meteors per hour from the radiant point in the constellation Leo.
December 20 – Peak of the December Leonis Minorid Meteor Shower
Meteors, meteors, everywhere! While the December Leonis Minorid Meteor Shower is one of the lesser-known and least active of the month, it’s still a fun astronomical event if you find yourself out for a winter solstice celebration and the skies are dark.
On the night of December 20th, look for up to 3 meteors per hour from the radiant point in Leo Minor; for most viewers it will be low in the northwestern sky.
December 21 – December Solstice
For the northern hemisphere, December 21 marks the winter solstice. We’ve got a great list of winter solstice celebrations to inspire you on the longest night of the year… Or you could just plan on some stargazing as the moon will be only 18% illuminated.
In the southern hemisphere, it’s the shortest night of the year – the summer solstice. We have a list of cool summer solstice celebrations if you’re curious about those too!
December 22 – Close Approach of the Moon & Mars
After many months of limited Mars-viewing options, there’s a nice opportunity to view the red planet overnight from December 21st to 22nd. The Moon and Mars will make a close approach in the dawn hours of December 22nd, passing within 3°20′ of one another. While this is too far to view within a single telescope field of view, you can use binoculars to get a closer view.
The Moon will also be only 10% illuminated, so it will help guide you to Mars (which is pretty obvious for its reddish hue anyway) without obscuring the view.
December 23 – Peak of the Ursid Meteor Shower
While the Geminids are the star of December’s meteoric events, don’t forget that the Ursids occur too, peaking on the 23rd this year. The Ursids occur from December 17th to 26th. On the night of peak activity (December 23rd this year), you can see a maximum of about 10 meteors per hour. This may seem low after the Geminids, but the Ursids are still a respectable and consistent meteor shower late each year.
The Ursids radiate from the constellation Ursa Minor. Look for the North Star to find Ursa Minor, and then scan the whole northern sky to try and spot these meteors as they occur. As Ursa Minor is a circumpolar constellation, it’s possible to try and spot meteors the entire night. Also, the moon will be almost at its new phase the sky will be exceptionally dark.
December 25 – Annular Solar Eclipse
Certain parts of earth will receive an astronomical present to mark the Christmas holiday: an annular solar eclipse, also known as a ‘ring of fire’ eclipse. At least a partial eclipse will be visible in Africa, Oceania, Asia, and islands through the Pacific Ocean. The path of totality will cross parts of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
December 28 – NGC 2232 is Well-Placed & Close Approach of the Moon & Venus
December 28th is another night with multiple astronomical sights worth seeing. The first is that open star cluster NGC 2232 will be well-placed for viewing. This deep space object is located in the constellation of Monoceros, near Orion. While it’s tricky to see NGC 2232 with the naked eye, you can spot it with binoculars or a telescope by following Orion’s belt “to the left” in the December night sky.
You can also see a close approach between the Moon and Venus on the night of December 28th. They’ll pass within 0°58′ of each other, easily visible with the naked eye or binoculars (but a little too far apart for a telescope). As the moon will be only 3% illuminated on this night, you can use the sliver of waxing crescent moon to spot bright Venus in the sky.
December 29 – NGC 2244 is Well-Placed
To round-out an exceptionally full month of astronomical sights, here’s one more. Look for the open cluster NGC 2244 in the Rosette Nebula on the night of December 29th. This nebula and cluster will be high in the sky and well-placed for viewing. They’ll reach their highest point around midnight local time. The Rosette Nebula is located in the constellation Monoceros.
Do you have questions about these December night sky events? Let us know in the comments!
Featured photo credit: Kaustav Ghose via Flickr