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December Star Map

Printable quality Star Map Click Here

Instructions for using the star map Click Here

 

Heavenly Holiday Skies!

No matter what holidays you celebrate this time of year, there’s a lot to celebrate in the night sky this month. Believe it or not, there’s even a little Christmas tree in the night sky. I’ll tell you about that in a bit.

December treats us to a major meteor shower and a minor one. The major one is the best of the year, the Geminids. It peaks the night of December 13-14th, but the moon will prove to be an obstacle, although not completely. That night we’ll have a waxing gibbous moon spreading a whole lot of light through the sky, visually washing out most of the meteors. There is a window of opportunity, though. The moon sets around 3 am providing you with better than three hours to enjoy the Geminids. Lie back in a reclining lawn chair wrapped up in blankets and roll your eyes all around the sky. In the countryside, it’s very possible to see well over 50 meteors an hour. If it looks like cloudy skies the night of the 13-14th, try looking two or three nights before the peak. You may not see as many meteors, but the moon will be setting earlier, leaving you even more time for meteor hunting.

A minor meteor shower called the Ursids takes place later this month, peaking the night of December 21-22nd. At best, it only produces 10 to 20 meteors an hour, but this year you probably won’t see that many with the waning full moon whiting out the early morning heavens.

The day before the Ursids, December 21st, marks the winter solstice, with the sun shining directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. It’s the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere and the shortest night in the southern hemisphere. From now until the late next June, the sun’s path among the backdrop of stars will slowly migrate northward, and the sun will appear higher and higher in the sky in the northern hemisphere.

The Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter show will continue in the early evening sky all month long. All three planets are nearly equally spaced apart in a diagonal line in the southwest sky. Venus is the lowest and brightest, barely above the horizon at the start of the evening. Don’t wait too long to check them out because they’ll set one by one shortly afterward. In fact, toward the end of December, Venus will sink below the horizon during evening twilight.

From December 6th to the 9th, the new crescent moon will be in the vicinity of the planets making for some nice conjunctions. The best one will be on the 6th, with the moon shining barely below Venus. You can still see Saturn's rings and the moons of Jupiter with a telescope, although they won’t be as clear now as they were earlier this autumn. They’re a little farther away from Earth now, and since they’re closer to the horizon, they will appear a bit fuzzy because of the thicker layer of Earth’s atmosphere near the horizon.

Even though it’s December, we can still see a few summer constellations in the early evening western sky. Look for the “Summer Triangle” of stars; Vega, Altair, and Deneb, the brightest stars in their respective constellations Lyra the Lyre, Aquila the Eagle, and Cygnus the Swan. Deneb, at least 1400 light-years away, marks the tail of the swan. Elsewhere, the great horse Pegasus is riding high in the southern sky with Cassiopeia the Queen, resembling a bright “W,” perched high in the northern sky. Meanwhile, the Big Dipper is riding very low in the early evening northern sky. Depending on where you live it may be partially below the horizon.

The later you stay up in the evening, the better you’ll see the fabulous winter constellations. The best one is Orion the Hunter. Its calling card is the three bright stars in a row that make up his belt. Preceding Orion is the bright constellation Taurus the Bull, with the beautiful Pleiades star cluster. There’s also Auriga, a constellation that looks like a lopsided pentagon. Its brightest star, Capella, marks one of the corners of the pentagon. Auriga is supposed to be a chariot driver turned goat farmer. To the north of Orion is the constellation Gemini the Twins, with the bright stars Castor and Pollux marking the heads of the twin brothers Castor and Pollux.

As promised, I want to tell you about the Christmas Tree Cluster, more formally known as NGC-2264. The only thing needed to see the cluster is a pair of binoculars. It’s high enough in the sky for decent viewing between 8 and 9 pm. The best way to find it is to use the constellation Orion. On the upper left corner of Orion is Betelgeuse, a bright reddish star that marks the hunter's armpit. On the upper right corner of Orion is Bellatrix, not quite as bright as Betelgeuse. Draw a line from Bellatrix to Betelgeuse, then continue that line about ten degrees to Betelgeuse's lower left. Ten degrees is about the width of your fist at arm's length. Scan that area with your binoculars or a telescope, and you should eventually find the Christmas Tree Cluster. Your Sky Guide app will help you pinpoint it.

Once you find the cluster, you'll see about twenty or so stars arranged in the shape of a Christmas tree, but its brightest star is not at the top of the celestial Tanenbaum but rather at the base of the tree. I hope the cosmic Christmas tree adds to your holiday spirit!

Have a fun-filled and star-filled, most wonderful time of the year!

 

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and is author of the book, “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications. Available at bookstores and online at www.adventurepublications.net.

If you have any astronomical questions or want me to write about something you’re seeing in the night sky drop me a line at mikewlynch@comcast.net