December stargazing is always a bit confusing. The nights in the northern hemisphere are the longest of the year, providing 14 hours of darkness or more for most of the United States. On the other hand, the nights are among the coldest of the year, so viewing conditions aren’t always pleasant. You don’t have to spend hours under the stars, though, to appreciate the beauty of the night sky. Bundle up, take a warm beverage, and give your eyes a few minutes to adapt to the darkness. After that, in 15 minutes you can take in the entire sky, and even use binoculars to scan for galaxies, distant star clusters, nebulae, and other wonders.
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In the Sky This Month
December 12: Venus and Saturn
The planet Saturn is about to disappear in the evening twilight. It’s easy to spot over the next few nights, though, because it’s near Venus, the “evening star.” They are quite low in the southwest shortly after sunset.
December 13: Geminid Meteors
The Geminid meteor shower is expected to be at its best tonight. Unfortunately, though, the Moon is just a couple of days past full. Its glare will overpower all but the brightest of the “shooting stars.”
December 14: Sirius Rising
Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, rises about 9 p.m. and remains visible throughout the night. It twinkles dramatically as it climbs into view. Sirius is one of our closest stellar neighbors, at a distance of 8.6 light-years.
December 15: Capella
The bright yellow-orange star Capella stands about a quarter of the way up the northeastern sky at nightfall. It’s the leading light of Auriga the charioteer. Capella links with the constellation’s other major stars to form a hexagon.
December 16: Moon and Regulus
Regulus, the bright star that marks the heart of the constellation Leo, the lion, stands close to the right of the Moon as they climb into good view late this evening.
December 17: Saturnalia
Today is the beginning of Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival. The early Christian church may have adopted December 25 as the date for Christmas in part to counteract the effects of Saturnalia and other pagan festivals.
December 18: Delta Cephei
Delta Cephei, one of the brighter stars in Cepheus, the king, which is high in the north at nightfall, is about 900 light-years from us. Knowing that range is important because the star is like a mile-marker. Its distance helps measure the scale of the universe.