With multiple meteor showers, including arguably the year’s best in December, along with full moons, planetary appearances and flyovers of the International Space Station, there’s plenty to enjoy by looking up.
While only viewable in South America, December also presents what is expected to be a stunning total solar eclipse.
We’ve created a guide on what to look for and when.
October begins and ends with a full moon, the first appearing atypically tiny because of its distance from earth in orbit. That moon, called the Hunter’s Moon or Harvest Moon, kicks off the month.
Halloween will feature a full moon, too, also relatively diminutive in appearance because the moon is close to apogee, or the farthest point in its orbit. The Oct. 31 full moon is also special because it’s a “blue moon,” or the second full moon in a month.
Blue moons only happen every two to three years on average, because the lunar cycle lasts 29.5 days. That means only one full moon can usually occur within a given month. Occasionally, two squeeze in on either side of the lunar cycle when it overlaps just right with a calendar month. So if you’ve been waiting for “once in a blue moon” to do something, your chance is coming up.
Of course, there will be no change in appearance to the moon — it will not turn blue.
Otherwise, Mercury will be easily spotted at the beginning of the month. Because Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, it loiters nearby the sun in the sky. That means you’ll only be able to spot it when the sun disappears a little after sunset, hanging low in the western sky a little bit to the left.
On Oct. 13, SeaSky.org reports, Mars will be brighter than at any other time this year. Part of the reason it will appear so bright is because it’s fully bathed in sunlight, opposite the sun in the sky. Therefore, you’ll be able to see it in the east a little bit after sunset.
There will also be a handful of minor meteor showers during the month, including the Draconis, Orionids and Southern Taurids. They occur the nights of Oct. 7, 21 and 29, respectively. Even beneath clear, dark skies, you probably won’t see more than two or three shooting stars per hour, but if you’re planning to be out anyway, it doesn’t hurt to look.
If you didn’t catch Mercury in October, you’ll have a shot in November before sunrise on the 10th. Just look east before sunrise.
On the night of the 11th, the Northern Taurid meteor shower will peak. The meteor shower actually spans nearly two months, but with only a trickle of activity. Meteor rates will still be paltry even during the peak, but the Northern Taurids will still spit out a couple shooting stars each hour.
The Northern Taurids mark leftover pieces of debris deposited in the wake of asteroid 2004 TG₁₀, a piece of rock more than a half-mile wide that orbits the sun every three years and four months.
A more reliable show comes in the form of the Leonid meteor shower on the night of Nov. 16. It’s a middle-of-the-road meteor shower, with rates not as laggard as the Northern Taurids, for example, but less prolific than the annual Perseids or Geminids. Still, 10 to 15 shooting stars per hour can be spotted under ideal conditions, and the new moon of Nov. 15 will keep skies nice and dark.
Leonid meteors are often bright and colorful, with a few extra-luminous “fireballs” mixed in. On occasion, they’ve even produced meteor storms, with striking meteor rates topping 50,000 per hour. Unfortunately, no such episodes are anticipated in the foreseeable future.
You may also hear buzz about a penumbral lunar eclipse during the early morning hours of Nov. 30. This isn’t worth staying awake for. A penumbral eclipse occurs when the moon passes through only the most diffuse, outer region of the earth’s shadow. There won’t be much of a noticeable difference in the moon’s appearance, and penumbral eclipses are a surefire way to disappoint. Save your energy for the real shows.
December will be by far the best and worst month for astronomers in years. The reason? An incredible, once-in-a-lifetime scene will be visible from some of the best observation territory in the world, but it’s likely that the novel coronavirus travel restrictions will make it difficult to impossible to get there in person.
On Dec. 14, a total solar eclipse will sweep over Chile and Argentina in South America, the path of totality crossing over active volcanoes and stunning landscape. The sky’s abrupt darkening will coincide with the latter half of the Geminid Meteor Shower, meaning a few green meteors may flash overhead as the eclipse dazzles.
Unfortunately, most international astronomers won’t get to witness the spectacle. American citizens are not permitted to enter Chile because of the coronavirus pandemic; the same is true of Argentina.
On the plus side, those of us stateside can enjoy a consolation prize — the Geminid meteor shower will still produce a robust display. The Geminids produce slow-moving, green, pink and purple meteors that are arguably the most spectacular of the year to watch. They’ll be most visible the night of Dec. 13 into the 14th, which also marks the new moon. That signifies optimal viewing for the meteor shower, with no risk of meteors being outshined. It stands to be the best show in years.
The winter solstice comes Dec. 21, at which point the sun’s most direct rays have reached the southernmost point in their annual latitudinal meandering, beaming down directly over the Tropic of Capricorn in the southern hemisphere. That heralds the time of the year with the least amount of daylight in the northern hemisphere, but, on the plus side, is the bottom of our daylight “dip” — and days will begin growing in length thereafter.
This year’s winter solstice also features some sky splendor of its own — a “great conjunction” of Saturn and Jupiter. The two will virtually overlap after sunset in the southwest sky. It is reported that the rare conjunction will be most dramatic since 1623.