This year has taken most of the good things away from us. We’ve been forced indoors, secluded from friends, family and the routine comforts of life. With existence reduced to a monotonous slog, you may have trouble finding things to get excited about — but nature can always help change that. Take the month of December, which is absolutely brimming with celestial events that will turn the sky into a playground for serious astronomers and amateur stargazers alike.
Here’s a snapshot of some of the major events taking place many miles above the Earth this month. Ready your binoculars or your telescope, and take note.
Editor’s Note: Many of these events will only be viewable in the Northern Hemisphere, but Jupiter and Saturn’s kiss will be a worldwide phenomenon.
The Geminid meteor shower
This big-time visual feast is a marquee event on the celestial calendar every year. It happens when Earth travels through a field of scattered debris left behind by the orbit of asteroid Pantheon 3200. The meteor show is active from Dec. 4-17, and even though the it typically satisfies our astronomical expectations, this year the cosmos is blessing us with a show that should be even more gorgeous than usual.
NASA explains why, as well as how to see it streak across a sky near you:
The Geminids produce a good number of meteors most years, but they’re made even better this year as the shower’s peak coincides with a nearly new moon. (Thus making for darker skies, with no moonlight to interfere with the fainter meteors.) The Geminids peak overnight on December 13th into the morning of the 14th, with some meteor activity visible in the days before and after. Viewing is good all night for the Northern Hemisphere, with activity peaking around 2 a.m. local time, and after midnight for viewers in the Southern Hemisphere.
For ideal viewing conditions, lie flat on your back facing away from any light sources.
Jupiter and Saturn will “kiss”
A “kiss” between these two planets occurs every 20 years, but this one carries historic magnitude, since it’ll will be the closest since the year 1226. What is a planetary kiss? It’s not so much two gargantuan balls of gas locking lips as it is a near-convergence of the planets as viewed from Earth. Astronomers call this phenomenon “the great conjunction.” At its peak this year, the planets will be only 0.1 degrees apart, or roughly 1/5 the size of the diameter of a full moon, according to EarthSky. That peak will occur on Dec. 21, but you can catch a glimpse of the ongoing phenomenon throughout the month of December — and it is observable from anywhere on Earth.
NASA offers simple instructions for how to observe Jupiter and Saturn, uh, sitting in a tree, writing in a statement: “Look above the western horizon after sunset for these bright, close planets – a clear view will help!”
And you don’t want to miss out, because this will be the planets’ closest conjunction until the year 2080.
A total solar eclipse
Disclaimer: This one is only visible on the ground to people in South America, but an internet connection can bring it straight into your home anywhere in the world via livestream. This will be the only solar eclipse of 2020. If you recall the pandemonium that ensued during the solar eclipse of 2017, which was visible across the contiguous United States, this year’s event might give you reason enough to log on and check it out. Set a reminder for Dec. 14 at 11 a.m. EST.
The Northern winter solstice
An annual tradition you can count on, the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice falls on Dec. 21. You won’t have to put in so much legwork to see this one: Depending upon where you live, the sun will reach its southern most point around noon, resulting in the “shortest amount of daylight of the year for the Northern Hemisphere, and the longest amount for the Southern Hemisphere,” per Space.com. As with all celestial events, pray for clear skies.
As an uncertain winter inevitably inches closer, it’ll be good to have these literal bright spots on your calendar.