Backyard Observatory

Stunning Meteor Showers & a Great Conjunction Are Among December's Stargazing Highlights

Here's what to look for when you're looking up.

night sky right now
The milky way and meteors of the annual Lyrids meteor shower are seen in the night sky over Burg auf Fehmarn on the Baltic Sea island of Fehmarn in northern Germany. | DANIEL REINHARDT/DPA/AFP via Getty Images
The milky way and meteors of the annual Lyrids meteor shower are seen in the night sky over Burg auf Fehmarn on the Baltic Sea island of Fehmarn in northern Germany. | DANIEL REINHARDT/DPA/AFP via Getty Images

If you're one of the many people who dove into stargazing for the first time or rediscovered a love of the night sky due to the pandemic, you're going to be rewarded with gorgeous views to end the year. 

As far as big stargazing events go, December isn't the busiest month. What you are getting, however, are some absolutely stunning displays. The winter constellations are out and planets are shining bright. But the chilly month's highlights include a Geminid meteor shower that can produce more than 100 meteors per hour and a great conjunction that will bring Saturn and Jupiter closer together than they have been at any time since the middle ages.

Here are all the best stargazing events you'll be able to soak in during December. 

December 9 & 10 - See the northern lights

It's a surprise addition to the December lineup. The Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) has issued geomagnetic storm watches for December 9 and 10, and it has the potential to be a strong blast of solar wind with a G3 storm forecast for the first night from 11 pm to 2 am ET. (There's a G1 watch for the entire night, though.)

What this all means: There's a good chance that the northern lights will be visible much further south than you'd expect to see them on a given night. During the three-hour window where a G3 watch is in effect, there's the potential (under clear skies) for the aurora to appear over northern Idaho, northern Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, northern Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming, in addition to all of Alaska and Canada, where this isn't all that uncommon. Get all of the details here

December 12 & 13 - Venus and the moon come together

The moon and the brightest planet in Earth's sky will come together on the morning of December 12. The two will have a conjunction later that day, but the closest you'll be able to see them will be early in the morning after Venus rises around 5:08 am. That will give you a little over two hours to catch them before the sun rises. 

The duo will still be close together on the morning of December 13, when Venus will rise just a couple of minutes later. 

December 13 - The Geminid meteor shower peaks

One of the year's most exciting meteor showers will hit its peak the night of December 13 into the morning of December 14. The Geminids are almost always a good show, despite arriving during a frigid month. Nonetheless, Bill Cooke of NASA Meteoroid Environment Office tells Thrillist this it will be a "very good year to observe the Geminids."

This year, you might see as many as 100 meteors per hour. Plus, the Geminids can produce fireballs, which are particularly bright, showstopping meteors. You'll want to head out after midnight, with the best viewing coming around 2 am local time. 

December 14 - A total solar eclipse

A rare total solar eclipse will take place on December 14. Unfortunately for US viewers, this isn't going to be a major event like the so-called "great American eclipse." This one is only going to be visible in Argentina and Chile, with a partial solar eclipse visible in Angola, Brazil, Namibia, Saint Helena, South Africa, Uruguay, and a few other countries. Though, you should be able to watch a live stream of the totality if you don't want to miss the event. 

December 16 & 17 - Jupiter, Saturn and the moon have a close encounter

Just days before the great conjunction, we'll have a run of conjunctions between Jupiter and the moon as well as Saturn and the moon. With the gas giants setting early in the evening, the moment of their closest approach to the moon won't be visible from the US. However, early in the evening of both December 16 and 17, the moon will be close to the big planets, creating a small triangle of celestial objects. 

Both Jupiter and Saturn rise while the sun is still up and aren't visible until the sun has sufficiently faded from view. They'll remain visible low in the sky until just after 7 pm.

December 21 - The great conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter

This is a must-see for even the casual stargazer. Jupiter and Saturn are going to have a very close approach on December 21. It's going to be their closest approach—from our perspective on Earth—since 1226, per  Patrick Hartigan, an astronomer at Rice University. You won't be able to spot them this close again until 2080. That makes this a genuinely once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You'll even be able to spot the two gas giants in the same field of view through a telescope. 

A conjunction between the two is referred to as a great conjunction because it's the rarest of all two-planet conjunctions that are visible with the naked eye. (Also, some are referring to this as the "Christmas star.") One between Jupiter and Saturn hasn't even been visible since 1980. Look in the south-southwest sky at sunset or just after to see the sight, and be sure you've got a clear view along the horizon. They'll only be above the horizon for a little while with a setting time just before 7 pm.

December 22 - Ursid meteor shower hits its peak

The Ursids—sometimes called the "cursed Ursids"—will look pretty tepid in comparison to the Geminids earlier in the month. The shower is expected to produce about 10 meteors per hour. That's not nothing, but the cold temperatures and slow pace of meteors make it pale in comparison to the other big shower this month.

Ready to go stargazing?

Here are all the best stargazing events that you can get out and see this month or you could stay in a stream the northern lights from home. If you're just getting started, check out our guide to astronomy for beginners or easy stargazing road trips from big US cities

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Dustin Nelson is a Senior Staff Writer at Thrillist. Follow him @dlukenelson.
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