A Comet & the Year's Best Meteor Shower Among the Top Stargazing Events in December
Catch a meteor shower, the moon interacting with planets, and Comet Leonard are must-see events this month.
When you think about enjoying December, going out late at night to sit in the cold isn't likely to be the first activity that comes to mind. Nonetheless, there are plenty of reasons to do just that.
The best stargazing events of the month include gambles with the potential for a big payoff. The Geminid meteor shower arrives with the potential to be the year's most exciting meteor shower. There's also a rare opportunity to see a comet as Comet Leonard passes through our solar system. Moreover, there's a stack of planets that will have a close pass with the moon, creating a beautiful tableau for many nights mid-month.
Here's a look at December best stargazing events.
December 4: A Total Solar Eclipse
A total solar eclipse is a relatively rare thing. You don't see them often. That's why there was so much fervor around the "Great American Eclipse" back in 2017. There's another this year, but it's trekking across one of the least habited parts of the planet. The 2021 total solar eclipse will only be visible in Antarctica. So, you know, good news/bad news. You're very unlikely to see this one in person. But there will be streams of the event online. So, you can kind of experience the eclipse, but not like you did in 2017. Though, if you're at the southernmost points of South America, Africa, Australia, or New Zealand, you will be able to see partial phases of the eclipse.
December 6-10: The Moon Visits Venus, Saturn & Jupiter
Over the course of four nights, the crescent moon will swing past each of these three planets, one night at a time. On December 6, the thin slice of moon will sit just under Venus close to the horizon with Saturn and Jupiter stacked above and to the left.
The following night, the moon will be just under Saturn. Then on December 9, the moon will sit just under Jupiter. The final of those four nights will see the moon to the upper right of Jupiter, which sits atop the stack of planets. The crescent of the moon will get a bit larger each night as it starts to move toward its full phase.
Additionally, this is a good opportunity to enjoy Venus as an evening planet. It's going to sink toward the horizon and disappear later in the month.
December 10: Look for Comet Leonard
Comet Leonard will be making a quick pass through our solar system, and you might be able to see it early in the month. Now, comets are always difficult to predict. They're fickle. But NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) says that it will be at its brightest around December 10. In the week or so leading up to that, you may be able to spot it as well.
The JPL says you may need binoculars to see it because it's not that bright. Though, there is a chance you could see it with the naked eye around this time.
One of the challenges is that as it approaches its brightest point from our point of view, it's going to be getting closer and closer to the horizon, making it more challenging to spot. But you can look low in the eastern sky in the mornings to see if you're able to spot the comet.
Around December 14, you might have another chance to see it as it makes its return trip out of the solar system. At that point, it'll be in the western sky and again near the horizon. When that stretch comes around, you'll want to look in the evening, just after sunset, according to the JPL.
December 13-14: The Geminid Meteor Shower Hits Its Peak
The Geminids are annually one of the best meteor showers you can see, if not the best. Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office tells Thrillist that you can expect around 100 meteors per hour when the Geminids hit their peak the night of December 13 into the morning of December 14.
There are, however, caveats. The moon will interfere with your viewing experience until it sets. "On the night of the peak, the moon will set around 2 am," Cooke said. "So, you'll have from 2 am to dawn to see the Geminids in all their glory. Normally, you can start seeing Geminids just a couple of hours after sunset."
Earlier in the night, you'll still see meteors, but the moon will obscure any of the fainter Geminids.
December 19: The Full Moon
The final full moon of 2021 will land on December 19. It's not a super moon, but it's good to know when it arrives so you can plan any stargazing treks closer to this month's new moon.
Early in the Month: Last Call on Venus as an Evening Visitor
Get out in the early evening and spot bright Venus lurking low in the southwestern sky. Throughout the month it will continue to dip closer and closer to the horizon until it disappears from view. As NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory notes in its December "What's Up" video, it will be out of sight for most US viewers by the end of December. It will reappear in late January, but it will have switched to only being visible in the morning before sunrise. It won't be visible in the evening again until December of next year, per NASA.