The month of December marks the end of the fall and the beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere, with the solstice happening on December 21st. For many, including myself, this is the best time of the year, with Christmas decorations all around, the snow colouring everything in white, the family reunions and the joy of kids opening their presents. If you’re thinking of giving a telescope to someone as a gift, this guide will help you choose the right one, just follow this link: buying the first telescope! Now let’s see what December has in store for us this year.
December 4 – Super New Moon. Just like the previous month, December begins with a new Moon, which once again happens when our natural satellite is nearly at its closest approach to Earth (perigee), thus appearing larger in the sky. However, as for any other new Moon, this won’t be visible as only the far side of the Moon will be lit leaving the side visible from Earth in the dark. No worries though, prepare your telescopes and camera/eyepieces, this is the best time to hunt for faint deep sky objects.
December 4 – Total solar eclipse. Though this event is not visible from large part of the globe, it is still worth mentioning. A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between Earth and the Sun, obfuscating the latter. The Sun is much larger than the Moon of course but due to its closer proximity to Earth, the Moon appears equal in size thus covering the entire Sun’s disc. The view of this amazing event will be limited to Antarctica and the southern Atlantic Ocean while a partial eclipse will be visible throughout much of South Africa.
December 7 – Conjunction of the Moon and Venus. On this cold December evening a 3-day old waxing crescent Moon will meet the bright planet Venus in a jaw-dropping conjunction. The two will be visible around 5 PM (CET), over the south-western horizon, as dusk fades to darkness. This event is visible to the naked eyed although a pair of binoculars will deliver amazing views!
December 8 – Conjunction of the Moon and Saturn. One evening later, the now 4-day old Moon will get busy in another marvellous conjunction. This time it will be the ringed planet Saturn to accompany our natural satellite, with the show beginning at around 5 PM (CET) on the southern horizon. This event is visible to the naked eyed although a pair of binoculars will deliver amazing views!
December 9 – Conjunction of the Moon and Jupiter. For the third consecutive night the Moon, now 5 days old, will engage in yet another stunning conjunction, this time with the king of planets, Jupiter. Look up at the sky at around 5 PM (CET) on the southern horizon to find the pair dancing together. This event is visible to the naked eyed although a pair of binoculars will deliver amazing views!
December 13 – Conjunction of Venus and Pluto. The conjunction of Venus and Pluto may prove to be somewhat tricky to observe given the dwarf planet’s size and distance, which it makes your observations even more rewarding. The two bodies will be close enough to fit together in the field of view of a telescope but will also be visible through a pair of binoculars.
December 14 – Geminid Meteor Shower. Considered by many one of the best meteor showers of the year, the Geminid is active from December 4th to December 17th with its peak on this particular night, when in optimal conditions around 120 meteors per hours can be seen. This year, however, the peak occurs on a nearly full Moon night which, with its glow, will inevitably limit the views. The meteor shower generates from the debris left behind by the asteroid 3200 Phaethon and has its radiant in the constellation Gemini. This event is best observed from dark skies, far away from cities’ light pollution, and with the naked eye as a telescope would only reduce your field of view.
December 19 – Full Moon. The last full Moon of the year is generally called “Cold Moon” or “Long Night Moon”, obviously referring to beginning of winter, when the nights get longer and colder. This year the Cold Moon happens to be a micro-Moon, as our satellite will be nearly at its farthest point from Earth in its orbit (apogee), thus appearing slightly smaller in the sky. The full Moon is obviously well visible to the naked eye but the view through a telescope or binoculars is an unforgettable experience.
December 21 – Winter solstice. The winter solstice happens when Earth’s axis is tilted toward the Sun; this is the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, with roughly 8 hours between sunrise and sunset. It is also the official beginning of winter.
December 22 – Launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. Mark this day on your calendar for history is about to be made! After years of delays and extensive testing, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a joint effort of NASA, ESA and CSA, is now ready to be launched to unravel some of the mysteries of the cosmos. Do you want to know more? Follow this link to read my article: the James Webb Space Telescope!
December 31 – Conjunction of the Moon and Mars. The last show of the year 2021 is a stunning conjunction of a 27-day old Moon and the red planet, Mars. The pair will rise at around 7 AM (CET) over the south-western horizon, just one hour before sunrise. While the pair could fit in wide-field telescopes, the best way to observe this event is through a pair of binoculars.
DSOs in December. December is a great month for astrophotography as the sky is rich of breath-taking targets. Orion is still the dominant constellation while it climbs up in the sky with its marvellous jewels: the Orion Nebula (M42), the Horsehead and Flame Nebula (NGC 2023 and NGC 2024), Casper the Friendly Ghost (M78) and the beautiful open cluster NGC 2175, embedded in a colourful diffusion nebula.
Some wonderful nebulas that make great targets for astrophotography are the Flaming Star Nebula (IC31), the Witch Head Nebula (NGC 1909), the Hind’s Variable Nebula (NGC 1555), the Embryo Nebula (B 205) and the Northern Trifid Nebula (NGC 1579).
Star clusters such as NGC 2158, NGC 2168, the Pleaides (M45) and the Hyades (C41) are tremendous targets for both visual astronomy and astrophotography. Some of the galaxies up in the sky this month are the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), the Bode’s and Cigar (M81 and M82), the Triangulum Galaxy (M33) and the Firework Galaxy (NGC 6946). The Phantom Galaxy (M74) and the Starburst Galaxy (IC 10) are trickier targets but completely worth the effort.