Fireballs, bright Mars, and a big moon will dazzle in December’s night sky

Fireballs, bright Mars, and a big moon will dazzle in December’s night sky

The days are getting shorter in the northern half of the hemisphere. While this may make it difficult to have productive afternoons, the extra darkness allows for more time to gaze up at the night skies. December marks the beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere. This is due to the increased darkness and the cold weather being less hazy than the warmer, humid summer air.

Here are some celestial events to keep your eye on while closing out 2022.

December 7-Full Cold Moon

The last full moon of the year will reach its peak illumination at 11: 08 pm EST on December 7. The Old Farmer’s Almanac recommends that you look for it just before sunset, when the moon starts to peek above the horizon. Due to its higher trajectory in space, December’s full moon will be higher than other full moons.

December’s last full moon is known as the Cold Moon or the “time cold” moon. This Mohawk name evokes winter’s chill in the northern hemisphere. Some other names for the last full moon of the year are the Snow Moon (Eastern Band of Cherokees), the It’s a Long Night Moon (Oneida), and the Winter Maker Moon (Abenaki).

December 7- Mars at Opposition

The same night as the last full moon of 2022, Mars will be in its brightest opposition. NASA states that Mars and the sun are located on opposite sides of Earth during opposition. Mars rises in east from Earth just as the sun sets. Mars sets in west after spending the night up in the sky. Astronomers believe Mars is in “opposition” due to the Red Planet and sun appearing on opposite sides. If Mars and Earth had perfectly circular orbits, they would be closer than ever.

To get the best view of the Red Planet, turn east around an hour after darkness falls. Mars will appear as a reddish-orange star, which will rise and appear further to the south as the night progresses. The planet will be visible in the south by midnight.

In 2018, Mars was the brightest it had been in 15 years and in 2020, the Red Planet was at about 36.8 million miles away from Earth during a close approach.

December 13 and 14- Geminid Meteor Shower Peaks

If you like shooting stars, the Geminid meteor Shower is a great choice. It is one of the most reliable meteor showers every year and stargazers can see up to 120 meteors per hour at the shower’s peak if watching from a dark location, with an average of 75 space rocks per hour. The stellar show usually begins at 9 p.m. and peaks at 2 a.m.

[Related: How to photograph a meteor shower. ]

This year, the Geminids will have to compete with a bright, waning gibbous Moon. The extra light in the sky might make it harder to see the shooting star. The Old Farmer’s Almanac recommends trying to face away from the Moon to keep its shine out of your field of view.

On the evening of December 13, the moon will illuminate the sky from late evening on, but it will rise a little bit later on December 14.

December 21- Winter Solstice (Northern Hemisphere)

Winter will officially begin on December 21, with the astronomical solstice and the shortest day of the year. The solstice officially occurs at 4: 48 pm EST and is the day with the fewest hours of sunlight. As the Earth moves towards the summer solstice in May, the days will gradually grow longer after the winter solstice.

Since the Earth is tilted along its axis, the solstice sees one half of the planet pointed away from the sun while the other half points towards it. The solstice technically only lasts a moment, when a hemisphere-in this case, the northern-is tilted as far away from the sun as it can be.

[Related: Why we turn stars into constellations. ]

The winter solstice is celebrated by cultures around the world with festivals, parties, and feasting due to its symbolism of light triumphing over darkness.

December 21 and 22- Ursid Meteor Shower Peaks

In case you have to miss Geminid earlier in the month or the moonlight interferes with it too much, the Ursid meteor shower is predicted to peak on December 21 and early in the morning on December 22. Since the moon will be a faint waning crescent moon (only 3 percent illumination) it likely won’t interfere with this year’s Ursids in 2022.

Ursids can produce many as five to 10 meteors per hour, with a dark sky and little to no moonlight. Although, bursts of 100 or more meteors per hour have been observed.

December 21 and 24-Mercury At Its Greatest Elongation and Dichotomy

This will be Mercury’s fourth night apparition of the year. The planet’s greatest elongation occurs when it appears to be the farthest from sun. Stargazers can begin looking for Mercury in December’s evening sky as early as the second week. Mercury, the smallest planet of our solar system, is best seen when the sky starts to darken. It will reach its greatest elongation on December 21 and will be 5 degrees away from Venus that night.

On December 24, Mercury will reach dichotomy, or an intermediate half phase, at about the same time that that it appears furthest from the sun. Because Mercury’s orbit is not perfectly aligned to the ecliptic, the exact times of these events could differ by a few hours.

The same rules apply to watching the meteor shower and the lunar eclipse. You can also enjoy space-watching fun by going to a dark place away from any lights and letting your eyes adjust for around half an hour. Happy stargazing!

Read More