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Nighttrek Report: What to See in the December Sky

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By Neill Simmons

The highlight of December is the “Geminids” meteor shower which has a special two night peak on December 13 and 14.  Make sure to take time to see the best meteor shower of the year.  This display of shooting stars is also famous for sending us colorful meteors of white, yellow, and green.  The meteors can be seen all night long into the early morning dawn. Best viewing is between 9 to 11 pm each night.  We will be looking southwest. Make sure to bundle up with extra blankets!

While you are looking at the meteors, notice the planet Jupiter, which is very bright.  Jupiter is in the zodiac constellation Aries. Watch as the “King” of planets moves towards the west as the night progresses.  If you are up in the early morning, see Jupiter setting at 4 am.  If you have binoculars, look for the four biggest moons of Jupiter named by Galileo –  Europa, Io, Ganymede, and Callisto.  Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede, is bigger than the planet Mercury.

The planet Mercury is also in the night sky early in December. The best night to spot it is on Monday, December 4, low in the west at about 5:30 pm.  Binoculars will help. 

The golden planet, Saturn, sits in the zodiac constellation of Aquarius,  the Water Bearer.  Look southwest to see it with the naked eye.  It will set below the horizon after midnight.

On December 22, the Sun sets at 4:44 pm as we have our longest night of the year.  Notice where the sun sets at that moment and compare it to next June 21, the longest day of the year, when the Sun sets on the shortest night. 

DAWN PATROL:  Venus is still a beacon in the early morning sky from 3:45 am to sunrise.  

December 27 brings us the Full Moon.  The Native American Indians refer to this as the Cold Moon.  This is the month of some of the coldest, longest and darkest nights.  In addition, the December Full Moon is also known as “Big Winter Moon” by the Choctaw, or “Sun Has Traveled Home to Rest Moon” by the Zuni.  The Cheyenne called it “Moon When the Wolves Run Together.”

Look in the north to see the “Big Dipper.”  Notice that the dipper is upside down.  In June it will be back to normal. This is caused by the movement of the sky around the North Star, Polaris, which doesn’t ever move.

In December the “Great Square of Pegasus” is high in the night sky.   Look for the four stars of the same brightness that make up the square.

Like the Big Dipper, the Great Square of Pegasus isn’t a constellation. Instead, it’s an asterism, which is a noticeable pattern of stars. 

In December many people go south to vacation.  If you are traveling to Mexico or Hawaii, the Southern Cross, also known as the Crux constellation, is easy to see.  Look for a cross pattern of stars.  The name Crux is Latin for cross.

Put December 6 on your calendar to see the International Space Station (ISS) as it comes over us at 5:50 pm.  Look west as the ISS moves towards the east.  The ISS will be up for over six minutes and, remember, it has no blinking lights.  There are currently six astronauts on board as it travels over 17,220 miles per hour.

When not stargazing, Neill Simmons is a Wealth Advisor with LPL Financial in Woodland Hills.  If you have any astronomy or financial questions, he may be reached at 818-936-2626 or neill.simmons@lpl.com.


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