The December night sky presents the first opportunity to observe the winter constellations in the evening sky. The autumn constellations are still well placed high in the western sky after dust, but by mid-night the winter constellations become prominent in the eastern sky in early December. The Winter Solstice also occurs this month, on the 21st. This is when the Sun reaches it’s maximum position south of the celestial equator, and the start of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Likewise, it marks the beginning of summer in the Southern Hemisphere.
December nights are quite chilly, so dress warmly. Skies also appear with more clarity on cold crisp nights.
Stars and Constellations
Some of the brightest stars in the heavens occur in the winter night sky. The bright red star Aldebaran in Taurus marks the edge of the fall/winter constellations, as does the the appearance of The Pleiades, often confused as the Little Dipper. Following Taurus are two of the most famous winter constellations, Orion and Canis Major. Sirius, a white giant, is the brightest star in any sky situated in Canis Major. Orion contains two notable bright stars. Betelgeuse is another red giant and Regal is brilliant white. Other bright stars are Procyon in Canis Minor and Capella in the large constellation Auriga. The constellation Gemini contains two bright stars, Castor and Pollux, often referred to as the “Twins”. Cassiopeia and Perseus still dominant the northern sky with Auriga. Eridanus and Lepus occupy the southernmost skyline.
Full Moon Last Quarter New Moon First Quarter
December 6th December 14th December 22nd December 28th
Venus is low in the western sky just after sunset in the early month, accompanied by Mars. Venus will climb higher in the western sky by month’s end. Mars will be lost in the Sun’s glare in early December as it makes the transition into the morning sky by the end of the month. Mercury is very low in the morning sky in early month, although climbs higher by month’s end. Jupiter is still in the morning sky but by mid-night in late December it will be the showcase for planets in either morning or evening skies. Saturn is also a morning sky planet near the bright star Spica in the constellation Virgo. Saturn will also rise higher in the eastern sky as the month progresses.
There will be two annual meteor showers in December, the Geminids on the 13th – 14th and the Ursids on the 22nd and 23rd. A Last Quarter Moon will be present during the Geminid event, which will wash out many of the fainter meteors. The best time to view this event is right after the Sun sets. The Ursids radiate from the northern sky, and may be seen all night without much interference from moonlight.
Deep Sky Objects
The Great Andromeda Galaxy (M 31), is the showcase DSO for the Fall Constellations, and still high in the sky after sunset in early December. The object is easy in binoculars, and will fill the entire field of view at low power in even a small telescope. The showcase object for the Winter Constellations would be the Great Nebula in Orion (M 42). It can be seen with the naked eye as a fuzzy star in the middle of Orion’s sword. The famous Horsehead Nebula is also located in Orion, although requires a large aperture telescope and very dark skies to be observed. There are many open star clusters (galactic star clusters) situated throughout the Winter Sky, most visible with binoculars. The Pleiades, for example, is a naked eye object situated just above Taurus.
Much more information on stargazing, astronomy and telescopes can be found on our websites:
Reminder: Both websites are open for sales throughout December, however for delivery before Christmas orders should be placed prior to December 14th.