What’s up? December’s night sky

Telescopes pointed at the sky

Summertime in the Southern Hemisphere is a great opportunity to do some stargazing.

Mercury and Mars are still keeping each other company very low on the western horizon after sunset in the first half of December. Both planets will be quite hard to see, as they are dropping toward the horizon and by mid-month will be lost in the glare of the Sun. (Mercury will make a reappearance in the morning sky to the east at the end of the month).

Venus is prominent in the eastern sky before dawn, climbing higher in the sky as the month progresses. You won’t miss it—apart from the Sun and Moon, it’s the brightest thing in the sky.

Saturn, too, is visible in the morning sky, higher up than Venus and quite close to the star Spica.

Jupiter is well placed for viewing, too, about halfway up the sky in the northwest after sunset.

Except where indicated, all of the phenomena described here can be seen with just the unaided eye. And unless otherwise specified, dates and times shown here are for the Australian Eastern Daylight Time zone, and sky directions are from the point of view of an observer in the Southern Hemisphere.

Silhouette of person staring at the sky with binoculars

Binoculars are sometimes easier than telescopes for stargazing.

December 6

It’s New Moon today. New Moon is the opposite of Full Moon, and means, for a day or two, it is effectively impossible or very hard to see the Moon. This is because it between us and the Sun (although not exactly in line, otherwise we’d have a solar eclipse), and we are looking at the unilluminated side of the Moon.

December 7

A very thin crescent Moon will be near the planet Mercury tonight, low on the western horizon just after sunset. It will be very hard to see though—you might need binoculars to see it (make sure the Sun has fully set!…you don’t want to blind yourself.)

December 13

Today the Moon reaches its First Quarter phase, which is halfway between New Moon and Full Moon. Also today, the Moon will be at apogee, which is the farthest point in its orbit around the Earth. The distance between Earth and Moon will be 404,406 kilometres. And finally, take a look at the Moon and you’ll see a fairly bright star nearby. That’s not actually a star, it’s the planet Jupiter!

Also tonight, very low down near the western after sunset, the planets Mercury and Mars will appear near each other.

People looking at the nighttime sky

Make the most of summer nights by doing some stargazing.

December 14

The Moon is still near Jupiter tonight.

December 21

It’s Full Moon today. If the weather is clear, you’ll see the big, bright Moon rising over the eastern horizon as the Sun is sinking in the west.

There’s also a lunar eclipse this evening but, depending on where you live, you might not see much of it…or you might miss out altogether.

For most skywatchers in New Zealand, the main part of the eclipse will already be underway by the time the Moon rises. The Moon will still be quite low in the sky when the eclipse ends.

You can get more information on the eclipse, including when are where to see it, here.

December 22

Today it is the Summer Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere (Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere). This is the day when the Sun is highest in the sky for those in the Southern Hemisphere, and it is also the day where we have maximum hours of daylight. (For those in the Northern Hemisphere, it is the day of maximum hours of darkness.)

December 25

The Moon will be at perigee today, which is the closest point in its orbit around the Earth. The distance between Earth and Moon will be 368,461 kilometres.

December 28

Today the Moon reaches its Last Quarter phase, which is halfway between Full Moon and New Moon.

If you have any questions or comments on the night sky, please use the feedback form below. Happy stargazing!

Images courtesy IAU.

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