Night sky, December 2022: What you can see tonight [maps]

The night sky is more than just the moon and stars, if you know when and where to look.
Find out the latest night sky events and how to see them in this Space.com skywatching guide. (Image credit: Future)
Top telescope pick!

Celestron Astro Fi 102

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Looking for a telescope for the next night sky event? We recommend the Celestron Astro Fi 102 (opens in new tab) as the top pick in our best beginner's telescope guide

The night sky tonight and on any clear night offers an ever-changing display of fascinating objects you can see, from stars and constellations to bright planets, often the moon, and sometimes special events like meteor showers.

Observing the night sky can be done with no special equipment, although a sky map can be very useful, and a good telescope or binoculars will enhance some experiences and bring some otherwise invisible objects into view. You can also use astronomy accessories to make your observing easier, and use our Satellite Tracker page powered by N2YO.com (opens in new tab) to find out when to see the International Space Station and other satellites. You can also capture the night sky by using any of the best cameras for astrophotography, along with a selection of the best lenses for astrophotography.

Read on to find out what's up in the night sky tonight (planets visible now, moon phases, observing highlights this month) plus other resources (skywatching terms, night sky observing tips and further reading).

Related: The brightest planets in October's night sky: How to see them (and when)

Monthly skywatching information is provided to Space.com by Chris Vaughan of Starry Night Education, the leader in space science curriculum solutions. Follow Starry Night on Twitter @StarryNightEdu and Chris at @Astrogeoguy.

Editor's note: If you have an amazing skywatching photo you'd like to share for a possible story or image gallery, please contact managing editor Tariq Malik at spacephotos@themayfliesusa.com.

Calendar of observing highlights

Thursday, December 1 - Mars Closest to Earth (overnight)

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A week before Mars reaches opposition, the red planet will be closest to Earth from Wednesday evening into Thursday morning, December 1 in the Americas. At that time, Mars will be 50.61 million miles, 81.45 million km, or 4.53 light-minutes away. In a telescope, the planet will exhibit a maximum apparent disk size of 17.2 arc-seconds, and reveal the greatest amount of surface detail. The bright, reddish planet will shine high in the southern sky between the horn stars of Taurus. The first nights of December will also be ideal for attempting to see Mars’ tiny moons Phobos and Deimos, especially during the hours when they wander farther from the bright red planet’s glare. Mars will continue to visibly brighten in the sky until opposition night on December 7-8. The week delay occurs because the distance between Earth’s and Mars’ elliptical orbits is increasing at this time of the year.

Thursday, December 1 - Moon Passes Bright Jupiter and Faint Neptune (evening)

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In the southeastern afternoon sky on Thursday, December 1, the waxing gibbous moon will be positioned several finger widths to the lower right (or celestial south) of the bright, magnitude -2.6 planet Jupiter. The duo will be close enough to share the view in binoculars (green circle), allowing observers to glimpse the giant planet’s speck in the daytime. The pair will remain together in evening and set in the west after midnight local time. By then the diurnal rotation of the sky will shift Jupiter to the moon’s left. Much fainter, magnitude 7.9 Neptune will be positioned a palm’s width to Jupiter’s right (or celestial WSW), but the bright moonlight will make seeing the distant blue planet more difficult. On moonless nights, Neptune is visible through good binoculars and backyard telescopes.

Friday, December 2 - Mars Skirts a Star Cluster (all night)

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For several nights commencing on Friday, December 2, the westerly retrograde motion of the bright red planet Mars (indicated by the red markers labelled with the date at 8 pm) will carry it just a thumb’s width to the celestial north of a large open star cluster named NGC 1746 – close enough for them to share the eyepiece in a backyard telescope at low magnification (green circle). On Friday evening, Mars will shine to the cluster’s upper left. By Sunday night, Mars will migrate above NGC 1746’s smattering of stars, which are scattered over an area larger than a full moon. A quality telescope will also show Mars’ enlarged ochre disk festooned with a white polar cap and dark surface markings.

Saturday, December 3 - Neptune Pauses near Jupiter (evening)

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On Saturday evening, December 3 in the Americas, the distant, blue planet Neptune will complete a retrograde loop that has been carrying it slowly westward through the stars of northeastern Aquarius since late June. After pausing its motion tonight, Neptune will return to its regular eastward motion. On moonless evenings in December the magnitude 7.9 planet can be observed in good binoculars and backyard telescopes – but a bright, waning gibbous moon will shine near Neptune tonight. Perhaps wait a few nights and then search for the faint planet a palm’s width to the lower right (or 6 degrees to the celestial west-southwest) of Jupiter. Neptune and Jupiter will be almost cozy enough to share the field of view of binoculars (green circle).

Sunday, December 4 - Bright Moon Approaches Uranus (all night)

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On Sunday night, December 4, the bright, waxing gibbous moon will be positioned less than a fist’s diameter to the right (or approximately 8 degrees to the celestial WSW) of the magnitude 5.6 planet Uranus. The moon’s eastward orbital motion, plus the diurnal rotation of the sky, will tuck Luna closer below Uranus during the night. Observers in westerly time zones will see the pair closest together before dawn. Hours later, observers in northeastern Africa, Europe (except Iceland), part of the Middle East, Russia, and northern Japan can see the moon occult Uranus on Monday around 17:00 GMT. Watch for bright red Mars and the little Pleiades star cluster, also designated Messier 45, positioned to their left (celestial east).

Wednesday, December 7 - Full Oak Moon Occults Mars (at 11:08 p.m. EST)

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The December full moon will occur at 11:08 p.m. EST or 8:08 p.m. PST on Wednesday, December 7 in the Americas. That converts to 04:08 GMT on Thursday, December 8. Traditionally known as the Oak Moon, Cold Moon, and Long Nights Moon, it always shines in or near the stars of Taurus and Gemini. The Ojibwe of the Great Lakes region call the December full moon Manidoo Giizisoons, the “Little Spirit Moon”. For them it is a time of purification and of healing of all Creation. Since it’s opposite the sun on this day of the lunar month, the moon is fully illuminated and rises at sunset and sets at sunrise. Full moons during the winter months reach as high in the sky at midnight as the summer noonday sun, and cast similar shadows. Since the planet Mars will also be opposite the sun tonight, observers in northwestern Mexico, the Continental USA (except for southern and eastern states), all of Canada (except southwestern Nova Scotia), Greenland, Svalbard, western Europe, and the northern coast of Africa can watch the moon pass in front of, or occult, Mars. The event can be observed with unaided eyes, binoculars, and telescopes. Exact times vary by location, so use an app like Starry Night to determine your own circumstances. In Toronto, the leading edge of the moon will cover Mars at 10:29 p.m. EST on Wednesday evening. Mars will reappear from behind the moon’s opposite, southern limb at 11:17 p.m. EST. In Europe, the occultation will occur before dawn on Thursday morning. Start watching several minutes ahead of each time.

Thursday, December 8 - Mars at Opposition (all night)

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Mars will officially reach opposition after midnight on Wednesday, December 7 in the Americas. On that night, the bright red planet and the full moon will rise among the northerly horn stars of Taurus, the Bull at sunset, climb to their highest positions due south at midnight local time, and then set at sunrise. For observers located across most of North America, the full moon will occult Mars on Wednesday evening. On opposition night, Mars will shine with a peak visual magnitude of -1.97. Although its distance from Earth of 51.05 million miles, 82.15 million km, 0.549 AU, or 4.72 light-minutes will be slightly farther than it was at closest approach on November 30, Mars will still be an impressive sight in backyard telescopes, showing an apparent disk diameter of 17.05 arc-seconds (Jupiter’s disk spans about 42 arc-seconds). Mars’ Earth-facing hemisphere on December 7-8 will display its bright northern polar cap – visible as a small bright spot along the planet’s edge, the dark Tyrrhena Terra, Cimmeria Terra, and Sirenum Terra regions, and the lighter-toned Amazonis Planitia and Eylsium regions. After the lunar transit, the very dark, wedge-shaped Syrtis Major Planum region, the dark Tyrrhena Terra, and Sinus Sibaeus regions, and the lighter-toned Hellas Planitia region will all rotate into view. Mars oppositions occur approximately every 25.5 months.

Friday, December 9 - Watch Algol Fade (7:08 pm to 12:08 am EST)

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Algol, also designated Beta Persei, is among the most easily observed variable stars for skywatchers. During a ten-hour period that repeats every 2 days, 20 hours, and 49 minutes, Algol’s visual brightness dims and re-brightens noticeably when a companion star orbiting nearly edge-on to Earth crosses in front of the much brighter main star, reducing the total light output we receive. Algol normally shines at magnitude 2.1, similar to the nearby star Almach (aka Gamma Andromedae). But when fully dimmed, Algol’s brightness of magnitude 3.4 is almost identical to Rho Persei (or Gorgonea Tertia or ρ Per), the star that sits just two finger widths to Algol’s lower right (or 2.25 degrees to the celestial south). When Algol appears in the northeastern sky after dusk on Friday evening, December 9 in the Americas, it will be shining at its regular intensity. At 9:08 p.m. PST or 12:08 a.m. EST (on December 10), Algol will have faded to its minimum brightness. At that time it will sit nearly overhead. Algol’s changes can best be seen with unaided eyes and binoculars, which allow you to see its comparison stars at the same time. To find other opportunities to watch Algol fade, or to re-brighten, search the web for “minima of Algol” times.

Saturday, December 10 - Gibbous Moon Passes Pollux (all night)

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In the eastern sky on Saturday evening, December 10, the waning gibbous moon will shine several finger widths to the right (or several degrees to the celestial southwest) of the bright star Pollux in Gemini. Its fainter twin, the star Castor, will shine to their upper left. As the grouping crosses the sky during the night, the eastward orbital motion of the moon will carry it closer to Pollux during the wee hours of Sunday. Meanwhile, the diurnal rotation of the sky will swing the moon to the stars’ left. 

Tuesday, December 13 - Geminids Meteor Shower Peak (overnight)

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The Geminids meteor shower, usually one of the most spectacular showers of the year, runs from November 19 to December 24 annually. The number of meteors will gradually ramp up to a peak during the wee hours of December 14, and then decline rapidly on the following nights. Geminids meteors are often bright, intensely colored, and slower-moving than average because they are produced by sand-sized grains dropped by the asteroid designated 3200 Phaethon. In the Americas, expect to see the most Geminids beginning after dark on Tuesday evening, December 13 and continuing until dawn on Wednesday morning. True Geminids will appear to radiate from a position above the bright stars Castor and Pollux, but the meteors can appear anywhere in the sky. In years when the peak night sky is moonless, up to 120 meteors per hour are possible around 2 a.m. local time - the time when the sky overhead will be pointing toward the densest part of the debris field. In 2022, a waning gibbous moon will rise in mid-evening, obscuring the fainter meteors. 

Friday, December 16 - Third Quarter Moon (at 08:56 GMT)

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The moon will reach its third quarter phase on Friday, December 16 at 3:56 a.m. EST, 12:56 a.m. PST, or 08:56 GMT. The moon will rise at about midnight local time, and then remain visible in the southern sky all morning. At last quarter, the moon is illuminated on its western side, towards the pre-dawn sun. Last quarter moons are positioned ahead of the Earth in our trip around the sun. About 3½ hours later, Earth will occupy that same location in space. The week of moonless evening skies that follow last quarter will be ideal for observing deep sky targets. 

Saturday, December 17 - Stellar Halo around Mirfak (all night)

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During evenings in mid-December the constellation of Perseus can be seen climbing the northeastern sky. For 2022, it will also be above Mars. Since Perseus is superimposed upon on the outer reaches of the Milky Way, it is filled with rich star clusters. The largest of those surrounds its brightest star, Mirfak, or Alpha Persei. Melotte 20, also known as the Alpha Persei Moving Group and the Perseus OB3 Association, is a collection of about 100 young, massive, hot B- and A-class stars sprinkled over several finger widths (or 3 degrees) of the sky. The cluster can be seen with unaided eyes, but it sparkles in binoculars (green circle). Its stars are approximately 600 light years from the sun and are moving as a group - Mirfak along with them. That elderly yellow supergiant star has evolved out of its blue phase and is now fusing helium into carbon and oxygen in its core. 

Sunday, December 18 - The Hyades Cluster (all night)

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Located only about 150 light years away from the sun, Taurus’ triangular face is actually one of the nearest open star clusters to us. It is commonly called The Hyades, named for the five daughters of Atlas in Greek mythology. It also has the designations Melotte 25 and Caldwell 41. The cluster contains several hundred stars, with a half-dozen or so readily seen under moonless suburban skies, many as close pairs. It’s a superb target to view in binoculars (green circle). The five brightest members, all naked-eye stars, are within a few light years of one another. The cluster’s stars likely formed together about 625 million years ago. The bright orange star Aldebaran, at the lower (southeastern) vertex of the Hyades, is actually not part of the cluster. It is less than half as far away! In mid-December, the Hyades climbs the eastern sky in early evening and reaches its highest point due south by 11 p.m. local time.

Wednesday, December 21 - Mercury at Greatest Eastern Elongation (after sunset)

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On Wednesday, December 21, Mercury (orbit shown in red) will reach its widest separation of 20 degrees east of the Sun, and maximum visibility for its current evening apparition. With Mercury positioned just below the tilted evening ecliptic (green line) in the southwestern sky, this appearance of the planet will be a relatively good one for both Northern and Southern Hemisphere observers. The optimal viewing times at mid-northern latitudes will be around 5:20 p.m. local time. Viewed in a telescope (inset) the planet will exhibit a waning, slightly gibbous phase. The much brighter planet Venus will shine to Mercury’s lower right (or celestial west).

Wednesday, December 21 - Northern Winter Solstice (at 21:48 GMT)

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Winter in the Northern Hemisphere will officially commence on Wednesday, December 21 at 21:48 GMT, which converts to 4:48 p.m. EST and 1:48 p.m. PST. At that time the sun will reach the solstice - its southernmost declination for the year, resulting in the lowest elevation of the noonday sun, the shortest amount of daylight of the year for the Northern Hemisphere, and the maximum daylight hours for the Southern Hemisphere. After the December solstice, the amount of daylight time will begin to increase for the Northern Hemisphere.

Thursday, December 22 - Ursids Meteor Shower Peak (pre-dawn)

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The annual Ursids meteor shower, produced by debris dropped by periodic comet 8P/Tuttle, runs from December 13 to 24. The short-duration shower will peak while Earth is traversing the densest part of the debris field on Thursday afternoon, December 22 in the Americas. Since meteors require a dark sky, the best time to watch for them will be the hours before dawn on Thursday and again after dusk that night – but expect to catch fewer than the typical peak rate of 5 to 10 meteors per hour. True Ursids will appear to travel away from a position in the sky above Polaris in the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor), but the meteors can appear anywhere in the sky. This year’s shower peak will be moonless, allowing fainter meteors to be seen.

Friday, December 23 - New Moon (at 10:17 GMT)

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The moon will reach its new phase on Friday, December 23 at 5:17 a.m. EST, 2:17 a.m. PST, or 10:17 GMT. At that time our natural satellite will be located in Sagittarius, 4.5 degrees south of the sun. While new, the moon is travelling between Earth and the sun. Since sunlight can only reach the far side of the moon, and the moon is in the same region of the sky as the sun, the moon becomes unobservable from anywhere on Earth for about a day (except during a solar eclipse). On the evenings following the new moon phase, Earth’s planetary partner will return to shine in the western sky after sunset.

Saturday, December 24 - Crescent Moon Meets Venus and Mercury (after sunset)

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In the southwestern sky after sunset on Saturday, December 24, the very slim crescent of the young moon will begin its monthly trip past the planets - shining several finger widths to the left (or 5 degrees to the celestial southeast) of Mercury and Venus. Mercury will be positioned to the upper left of 24 times brighter Venus, close enough for the two inner planets to share the view in binoculars (green circle) – but don’t aim any optical aids towards the western horizon until the sun has completely set.

Sunday, December 25 - A Christmas Star (late evening)

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Sirius, the brightest star in Canis Major and in the entire sky (not counting the sun), will appear above the southeastern horizon by 7:30 p.m. local time in late December. It’s hard to miss Sirius once it clears the trees and rooftops. The star will climb to its highest point, in the lower part of the southern sky, shortly after midnight. If you are walking through your darkened house in the middle of the night, Sirius might catch your eye out a window because it never climbs very high. Sirius is a hot, blue-white, A-class star located only 8.6 light-years from the sun. Its extreme brightness and its low position in the sky combine to produce spectacular flashes of color as it twinkles. A very large telescope may allow you to see Sirius B, a faint white dwarf companion located just 10 arc-seconds east of Sirius.

Monday, December 26 - Crescent Moon and Saturn (evening)

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Two days after its visit with the inner planets, the young crescent moon will shine prettily beside Saturn in the southwestern sky, with the tail stars of Capricornus, the Sea-Goat twinkling between them. After dusk on Monday, December 26, the yellowish ringed planet will be positioned several finger widths to the upper right (or 5 degrees to the celestial northwest) of the moon – close enough for them to share the view in binoculars (green circle). By the time the duo drops below the west-southwestern horizon shortly after 8 p.m. local time, the moon will have been shifted to Saturn’s left. Observers who look immediately after sunset can catch the inner planets Mercury and Venus to their lower right before they set.

Tuesday, December 27 - The Entire Solar System (after sunset)

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On the evenings surrounding Tuesday, December 27, observers at mid-northern latitudes with unobstructed views to the southwest can observe the waxing crescent moon and all of the planets. After the sun sets, the inner planets Venus and Mercury will shine just above the southwestern horizon. The moon and the rest of the major planets in the solar system will stretch across the southern sky – tracing out the plane of our solar system. From celestial west to east, the line will extend from yellowish Saturn, past the crescent moon, Neptune, bright Jupiter, and Uranus, and end at bright reddish Mars. Neptune and Uranus will be easier to see in a darker sky after Mercury and Venus set.

Wednesday, December 28 - Venus Swings Past Mercury (after sunset)

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Starting about 20 minutes after the sun has completely set on Wednesday, December 28, search above the southwestern horizon for the planets Venus and Mercury. They will appear in a close conjunction, only a thumb’s width apart, with 41 times brighter Venus positioned below Mercury. On the following evening, the planets’ relative orbital motion (red paths with labelled dates at 5 pm) will shift Venus higher, to Mercury’s left. They’ll draw farther apart each evening as Venus climbs away from the sun while Mercury sinks sunward.

Wednesday, December 28 - Waxing Moon Meets Neptune and Jupiter (evening)

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In the southwestern sky on Wednesday evening, December 28, the waxing crescent moon will shine near very bright Jupiter and the faint speck of distant Neptune. Magnitude -2.39 Jupiter will be positioned a generous palm’s width to the moon’s upper left, or approximately 8 degrees to the celestial northeast, while Neptune will be located several degrees to the moon’s upper right (celestial north). The 38%-illuminated moon’s light will making seeing magnitude 7.9 Neptune harder – but good binoculars (green circle) and backyard telescopes can reveal the blue planet if you hide the moon outside of your field of view.

Thursday, December 29 - Half-moon Hops Past Jupiter (evening)

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Skywatchers who missed seeing the crescent moon posing below Jupiter on Wednesday will have a second opportunity to catch the moon shining near bright Jupiter in the southwestern sky on Thursday evening, December 29. For observers in easterly time zones, the moon and Jupiter will be just cosy enough to share the view in binoculars (green circle). Those viewing from farther west will see them more widely separated. As the moon and Jupiter sink towards the horizon in late evening, the diurnal rotation of the sky will lift the moon above the planet.

Friday, December 30 - First Quarter Moon (at 01:20 GMT)

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The moon will complete the first quarter of its monthly journey around Earth at 01:20 GMT on Friday, December 30, which translates to 8:20 p.m. EST and 5:20 p.m. PST on Thursday, December 29. At first quarter the moon’s 90 degree angle from the sun will cause us to see Luna exactly half-illuminated - on its eastern side. At first quarter, the moon always rises around mid-day and sets around midnight, so it is also visible in the afternoon daytime sky. The evenings around first quarter are the best ones for viewing the lunar terrain while it is dramatically lit by low-angled sunlight, especially along the terminator, the pole-to-pole boundary separating its lit and dark hemispheres.

Friday, December 30 - Two Shadows Cross Jupiter (7:27 to 8:15 p.m. JST)

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From time to time, observers with good telescopes can watch the small, round, black shadows of the Galilean moons traverse Jupiter’s disk. On Friday evening, December 30, sky-watchers located in eastern Asia, Southeast Asia, and Australia / New Zealand can watch two shadows crossing the southern hemisphere of Jupiter at the same time - for about 45 minutes. At 7:27 p.m. Japan Standard Time or 10:27 GMT, the small shadow of Io will join the larger shadow of Ganymede, which began its own crossing of the planet 90 minutes earlier. Ganymede’s shadow will leave Jupiter at 8:15 p.m. JST or 11:15 GMT, leaving Io’s shadow to continue on alone until 9:34 p.m. JST (or 12:34 GMT).

Saturday, December 31 - Welcome to the Winter Football (all night)

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The Winter Football, also known as the Winter Hexagon and Winter Circle, is an asterism composed of the brightest stars in the constellations of Canis Major, Orion, Taurus, Auriga, Gemini, and Canis Minor – specifically Sirius, Rigel, Aldebaran, Capella, Castor & Pollux, and Procyon. All of those stars will have cleared the horizon in the southeastern sky by 7 p.m. local time on Saturday, December 31. When it stands upright in the south towards midnight, the great pattern will encompass an area of the sky 45 degrees wide and 66 degrees high. The Milky Way passes vertically through the asterism, which is visible during evening from mid-November to spring every year.

Planets

Mercury

Mercury in the morning sky.  (Image credit: Starry Night Education)
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Mercury will begin the month of December hidden in the sky glow above the southwestern horizon after sunset. Its continuous slide eastward will allow it to become visible from mid-Northern latitudes after the middle of December, but observers in the tropics will glimpse it several days sooner. Mercury will be outpacing 20 times brighter Venus, which will shine about a palm’s width to its lower right, or 5 degrees to the celestial southeast. Mercury will reach a maximum angle of 20 degrees east of the sun on December 21. That night the speedy, magnitude -0.56 planet will be most easily visible for about half an hour starting at 5 pm local time. When viewed in a telescope, Mercury will display a 60%-illuminated waning phase and an apparent disk diameter of 6.8 arc-seconds. Venus will continue to shine to Mercury’s lower right until December 27, with the young crescent moon posing to their left on December 24. Mercury will descend sunward and fade in brightness, passing a mere 1.6 degrees to the right (celestial north) of Venus on December 29 – a scene best viewed in binoculars, but only after the sun has completely set.

Venus

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Like Mercury, Venus will spend the early part of December lurking just above the west-southwestern horizon after sunset. Its brilliant -3.38 magnitude might allow observers with cloud-free, unobstructed horizons to glimpse the planet. Around mid-month, Venus will have slid far enough east of the sun for sky-watchers at mid-northern latitudes to more easily see it. Twenty times fainter Mercury will shine about a palm’s width to Venus’ upper left (or celestial east) for most of December. After Mercury’s greatest elongation, it will drop sunward, passing only 1.6 degrees to the right of Venus in a tight conjunction on December 29. The very young crescent moon will shine a palm’s width to the left of the two planets on December 24. Viewed in a telescope during the latter half of December, Venus will exhibit a nearly fully-illuminated disk that spans 10 arc-seconds – but only observers at southerly latitudes, where Venus will be higher, will see a clear image.

Mars

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During the early hours of December 1, Mars will be at its closest proximity to Earth – a distance of 50.61 million miles, 81.446 million km, or 4.5 light-minutes. That will be the best night to view the markings on Mars’ 17.2 arc-seconds-wide globe, including the dark triangle of Syrtis Major and the bright disk of Hellas. The Martian moons Phobos and Deimos are more readily seen around closest approach, too – especially when they venture farthest from Mars’ glare. In the sky during December, bright, reddish Mars will rise at sunset and culminate high in the southern sky after midnight. The planet will be a fine sight in backyard telescopes as it travels in retrograde westward towards the Pleiades star cluster - beginning the month between the horns of Taurus and ending December nearly a fist’s width above the bright, warm-hued star Aldebaran. From December 1 to 5, Mars will pass close enough to the celestial north of the large open star cluster NGC 1746 for them to share your telescope’s eyepiece. Because Mars’ elliptical orbit is veering wider from Earth’s during December, Mars’ opposition will occur a week after its closest approach – specifically after midnight on December 7 in the Americas. Since the moon will also be opposite the sun that night, observers in northwestern Mexico, the Continental USA (except for southern and eastern states), all of Canada (except southwestern Nova Scotia), Greenland, Svalbard, western Europe, and the northern coast of Africa can watch the moon occult Mars, an event that can be observed with unaided eyes, binoculars, and telescopes. Exact times vary by location, so use an app like Starry Night to determine your own circumstances. In Toronto, the leading edge of the moon will cover Mars at 10:29 p.m. EST on Wednesday evening. Mars will reappear from behind the moon’s opposite, southern limb at 11:17 p.m. EST. In Europe, the occultation will occur before dawn on Thursday morning.

Jupiter

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Jupiter will be very well placed for observing during early evening in December. Although the bright planet will be setting shortly after 11 p.m. local time by the end of the month, the early sunsets at mid-northern latitudes will deliver plenty of hours to view the planet starting at dusk – with unaided eyes, through binoculars, and in backyard telescopes. Visually, Jupiter will decrease slightly in apparent brightness over the month, from magnitude -2.6 to -2.4. Because it ended its retrograde loop in late November, Jupiter will spend December ramping up its easterly prograde motion through southwestern Pisces, pursued by slow-moving Neptune and the speedy asteroids (3) Juno and (4) Vesta. In a backyard telescope Jupiter will exhibit dark equatorial bands across a disk that diminishes in size from 44.4 to 39.4 arc-seconds. The Great Red Spot will appear every second or third night, and Jupiter’s four large Galilean satellites will eclipse and occult one another, and cast their round, black shadows on the planet. The waxing moon will shine near Jupiter twice in December – as a gibbous moon 3 degrees to the south on December 1 and as a crescent hopping past Jupiter on December 28-29.

Saturn

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The creamy-yellow dot of Saturn will be visible in the southwestern evening sky in December - but its elongation from the sun will decrease from 70 degrees to 42 degrees over the month, giving us less and less time to view it in telescopes. On December 1, magnitude 0.77 Saturn will become visible in the lower part of the southern sky after dusk and then set towards 10 p.m. local time. At month’s end, the slightly less bright ringed planet will already be sinking in the southwestern sky at dusk.     During December Saturn will travel eastward above the medium-bright stars Deneb Algedi and Nashira, which form the tail of Capricornus, the Sea-Goat. Viewed in a telescope, Saturn will show an apparent disk diameter that diminishes slightly from 16.4 to 15.8 arc-seconds over the month. Its rings will stretch across 2.33 times that span. Saturn’s rings will tilt more edge-on to Earth every year until the spring of 2025. This year they are already closed enough for Saturn’s southern polar region to extend well beyond them. The pretty waxing moon will shine 5 degrees to the south of Saturn on December 26.

Uranus

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Uranus reached opposition on November 9, so the blue-green, magnitude 5.67 planet will still be an all-night target during December - especially after mid-evening, when it will climb higher, and appear more clearly in a backyard telescope or binoculars. All month long, Uranus’ small, blue-green dot will be moving slowly retrograde westwards through southern Aries, a generous fist’s width to the lower left (or 13 degrees southeast of) that constellation’s brightest stars, Hamal and Sheratan – and only a palm’s width north of the star Mu Ceti. On the evening of December 5 in the Americas, the very bright, nearly-full moon will shine several degrees to the left (or celestial east) of Uranus. Hours earlier, observers with telescopes in Europe, the Middle East, and northern Asia can see the moon occult Uranus around 17:00 GMT - the twelfth in a series of consecutive lunar occultations of that planet.

Neptune

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During December, the distant, blue planet Neptune will be observable during evening as a magnitude 7.9 speck in northeastern Aquarius, near that constellation’s border with Pisces. On December 3 Neptune will complete a retrograde loop that has been slowly carrying it westward since late June. Like nearby Jupiter, Neptune will ramp up its regular eastward motion during the rest of the month. The planet will be easiest to see when it is highest in the sky after dusk. To aid your search, far brighter Jupiter will shine about 6 degrees to Neptune’s east-northeast and the medium-bright star Phi Aquarii will shine almost as far toward its west-southwest. In a telescope, Neptune’s tiny apparent disk size will span 2.3 arc-seconds. Larger telescopes can show Neptune’s large moon Triton.

Skywatching terms

Gibbous: Used to describe a planet or moon that is more than 50% illuminated.

Asterism: A noteworthy or striking pattern of stars within a larger constellation.

Degrees (measuring the sky): The sky is 360 degrees all the way around, which means roughly 180 degrees from horizon to horizon. It’s easy to measure distances between objects: Your fist on an outstretched arm covers about 10 degrees of sky, while a finger covers about one degree.

Visual Magnitude: This is the astronomer’s scale for measuring the brightness of objects in the sky. The dimmest object visible in the night sky under perfectly dark conditions is about magnitude 6.5. Brighter stars are magnitude 2 or 1. The brightest objects get negative numbers. Venus can be as bright as magnitude minus 4.9. The full moon is minus 12.7 and the sun is minus 26.8.

Terminator: The boundary on the moon between sunlight and shadow.

Zenith: The point in the sky directly overhead.

Night sky observing tips

Adjust to the dark: If you wish to observe fainter objects, such as meteors, dim stars, nebulas, and galaxies, give your eyes at least 15 minutes to adjust to the darkness. Avoid looking at your phone’s bright screen by keeping it tucked away. If you must use it, set the brightness to minimum – or cover it with clingy red film. 

Light Pollution: Even from a big city, one can see the moon, a handful of bright stars, and the brightest planets - if they are above the horizon. But to fully enjoy the heavens — especially a meteor shower, the fainter constellations, or to see the amazing swath across the sky that is the disk of our home galaxy, the Milky Way — rural areas are best for night sky viewing. If you’re stuck in a city or suburban area, use a tree or dark building to block ambient light (or moonlight) and help reveal fainter sky objects. If you’re in the suburbs, simply turning off outdoor lights can help.

Prepare for skywatching: If you plan to be outside for more than a few minutes, and it’s not a warm summer evening, dress more warmly than you think is necessary. An hour of winter observing can chill you to the bone. For meteor showers, a blanket or lounge chair will prove to be much more comfortable than standing, or sitting in a chair and craning your neck to see overhead.

Daytime skywatching: On the days surrounding first quarter, the moon is visible in the afternoon daytime sky. At last quarter, the moon rises before sunrise and lingers into the morning daytime sky. When Venus is at a significant angle away from the sun it can often be spotted during the day as a brilliant point of light - but you’ll need to consult an astronomy app to know when and where to look for it. When large sunspots develop on the sun, they can be seen without a telescope – as long as you use proper solar filters, such as eclipse glasses. Permanent eye damage can occur if you look at the sun for any length of time without protective eyewear. 

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@themayfliesusa.com.

Chris Vaughan, aka @astrogeoguy, is an award-winning astronomer and Earth scientist with Astrogeo.ca, based near Toronto, Canada. He is a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and hosts their Insider's Guide to the Galaxy webcasts on YouTube. An avid visual astronomer, Chris operates the historic 74˝ telescope at the David Dunlap Observatory. He frequently organizes local star parties and solar astronomy sessions, and regularly delivers presentations about astronomy and Earth and planetary science, to students and the public in his Digital Starlab portable planetarium. His weekly Astronomy Skylights blog at www.AstroGeo.ca (opens in new tab) is enjoyed by readers worldwide. He is a regular contributor to SkyNews magazine, writes the monthly Night Sky Calendar for Space.com in cooperation with Simulation Curriculum, the creators of Starry Night and SkySafari, and content for several popular astronomy apps. His book "110 Things to See with a Telescope", was released in 2021.

  • Malcolm
    Hi MMohammad,
    Thank you for your gracious welcome via email, though I fear we are ‘light years’ away from each other (as my comment shows, if it stays and is not censored) when it comes to this Earth and the Universe in which we live. I am no expert but each to their own beliefs.
    Regards,
    Malcolm
    Reply