Updated: Mar 12
sooooo many reasons to enjoy the night sky this December! Solar eclipse, aurora borealis, meteor showers, Jupiter and Saturn.... just to name the headlines!
First most time sensitive is the northern lights! A solar storm is causing increased aurora activity meaning it's highly likely that we will see the northern lights as far south as south Dakota and even possible (but unlikely) they can even be seen in Colorado. https://www.spaceweatherlive.com/ is where I go for aurora predictions and it's currently predicting a "kp" value of between 3 to 7 tonight(12/10/20) and 3 to 6 Friday(12/11/20) night. the kp value is used to tell where aurora can be seen using the map below. These predictions are giving a wide range and unfortunately it will be hard to know for sure till within ~3hrs of the aurora event.
Something else to keep in mind is cloud cover is predicted to be thick https://graphical.weather.gov/sectors/conus.php?element=Sky you can use this map from the national weather service to see if there's a clear northern area near you. personally I'm watching the forecast in Hot Springs SD (~4hr drive from Denver) and if I see a break in the cloud I might just go for it. Otherwise I'll be searching youtube live streams to see if any observatories are live streaming the aurora.
it's a tad ominous that 2020 will be ending with a total solar eclipse that is partially visible in significant superstitious sites such as Easter Island. The 2020 solar eclipse will occur mid day December 14th and only visible in the southern hemisphere. I tried and tried to get down there to see it this year, the two obvious choices are Chile or Argentina both are very difficult to travel to during the COVID lock downs. So.... I'll again be searching youtube live streams to see if any observatories are live streaming the eclipse.
Finally something you can easily see with your own eyes in your own backyard! The Geminid meteor shower can be seen all week long reaching its peak on the 13th and 14th of December (just in time to hopefully be seen with the eclipse).
My biggest tip for seeing shooting stars is to lay on the ground looking up so that you can see the maximum amount of the sky in your field of view. The Geminids will likely be coming more from the eastern sky but you really never know where they will show up so laying and looking straight up will let you see the most sky and likely the most meteors. I have an old rug I take camping and laying on that under the stars I never fail to see a few shooting stars. The peak of this shower is predicted to have around 150 meteors per hour. However, using this trick all week and even into when there are no showers you are bound to see a shooting star or two.
Falling stars/shooting stars are more correctly called meteors. what you are seeing are little bits of debris (usually leftover from a comet) that is hitting the earth's upper atmosphere and burring up.
Jupiter and Saturn
Saturn and Jupiter!will be closer to each other than ever this December. They will both be in the south-western sky just after sundown. Jupiter is the brightest and is almost visible even during early twilight. Saturn is a bit fainter and currently just barely up and to the left of Jupiter.
If you have a pair of binoculars you might be able to see them both at the same time in the same field of view! with a good set of binoculars or a decent telescope you will be able to make out the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter. Personally because they are so low on the horizon I'm choosing to view this somewhere in the mountains where I will hopefully be able to see Saturn, Jupiter, and a foreground mountain/tree in the same telescope.
Jupiter and Saturn will be at their closest on December 21st. They will actually still be more than 400 million miles away from each other. What we are actually seeing is Jupiter passing Saturn on the inside lane. Jupiter takes ~12 years to go around the sun where Saturn takes ~30 years so Jupiter catches up and laps Saturn passing Saturn on the inside lane once every ~20 years. Because the Earth is in the perfect place we see this as them going by right next to each other in our night sky.
Stargaze with your family
I have a list of even more things you can see over the December holidays with your family even if you are doing a FaceTime celebration here: https://www.astrotours.org/post/no-matter-where-you-are-now-where-you-call-home-is-under-the-same-set-of-stars
Hope you enjoyed stargazing!
If you want to stargaze in person with giant telescopes I have a few tours coming up, be sure to book here. I also have made two 2021 calendars! One with star charts and info so you can keep stargazing all year long no mater where you are and learn the night sky for 2021 buy it here. One with phenomenal space pictures each month buy it here. Both can be shipped anywhere and make great gifts! Learn more about both calendars here.