Status: 28.11.2023, 19:16 PM
By: Tanja Banner
Cold, clear winter nights in December have a lot to offer: the stars twinkle, the planets shine and there is the best shooting star night of the year.
Frankfurt – December is one of the best months to enjoy the starry sky. This is partly due to the fact that the sun sets in the afternoon and the stars and planets can therefore be seen very early. December 22 is the shortest day of the year and the beginning of astronomical winter. But what can be seen in the sky also plays a role in December. Numerous bright stars and constellations twinkle in the sky on a clear December night.
There are, for example, the winter constellations Orion, Taurus, Gemini and Carter, which are already in the sky early in the evening and bring some interesting objects of observation. The "sword" of the constellation Orion is formed by the Orion Nebula (M42). The emission nebula can already be seen with the naked eye, and the first details can also be seen in small binoculars.
The Pleiades are an open star cluster in the constellation Taurus. They are also called "Seven Stars" or "Seven Sisters" and can be seen with the naked eye. (Archive image) © IMAGO/ingimage
The Orion Nebula is a star-forming region where researchers have only recently discovered so-called "JuMBOs" – binary objects the size of the planet Jupiter. The reddish glowing left shoulder star of the constellation Orion is also interesting: it is the red supergiant Betelgeuse, which has been suspected several times in recent years of exploding as a supernova.
Starry sky in December: Colorful flashing star Sirius is often mistaken for a UFO
Two other objects in the winter sky that can also be seen with the naked eye are star clusters: The Pleiades (M45) in the constellation Taurus can already be seen in the east at the beginning of December after sunset. The open star cluster consists of at least 400 stars and is more than 400 light-years away from Earth. Because it is dominated by seven bright stars, it is called the "Seven Stars" or "Seven Sisters". The Hyades are also an open star cluster in the constellation Taurus. They are made up of about 350 stars and are about 150 light-years away from Earth.
The most conspicuous star in the winter sky, however, is likely to be Sirius. At the beginning of December, it rises around 22 p.m., later in the month it appears in the sky a little earlier. It is particularly striking because it glows bluish-white and tends to flicker colorfully. For this reason, it is sometimes mistaken for a UFO and reported to the appropriate reporting offices. Sirius belongs to the constellation "Great Dog" and is the brightest star in our night sky. Actually, it is a binary star system at a distance of 8.7 light years.
With the rise of Sirius, the complete winter hexagon can be seen in the sky. It consists of the following stars:
- Kapella (in the constellation Charioteer)
- Pollux (in the constellation Gemini)
- Procyon (in the constellation of the Little Dog)
- Sirius (in the constellation of the Great Dog)
- Rigel (in the constellation Orion)
- Aldebaran (in the constellation Taurus)
Three planets visible to the naked eye in the December sky
Few celestial bodies shine brighter than Sirius – but there are a few of them to admire in the sky in December. In addition to the sun and moon, these include the planets. Three of them can be seen with the naked eye in the December sky, for two more you need binoculars. Venus is the brightest planet in the sky and can still be seen as the "morning star" in the morning sky. On December 1, it rises in the east around 4 a.m. and can be seen in the sky until after dawn. However, Venus's rising moves a little further back every day – at the end of the month, it does not rise until after 5 a.m.
One of the most striking winter constellations is Orion. The Orion Nebula ("Belt" of Orion) can be seen with the naked eye. (Archive image) © imago/StockTrek Images
Jupiter, on the other hand, is quite different: The second brightest planet rises in the afternoon and is thus visible in the east from the beginning of dusk. Even with small binoculars, it is an exciting object to observe, as you can then see its four largest moons. The Galilean moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto seem to dance around their planet – occasionally one of the moons can be seen disappearing behind Jupiter and later reappearing. Sometimes it is also possible to see the shadow of one of the moons on the planet.
Planet Saturn sets a little earlier every day
Saturn can also still be seen in the sky in December. However, at the beginning of the month, it already sets around 22:30 p.m. On New Year's Eve, the planet disappears below the horizon at 21 p.m. in the west. Saturn is also a worthwhile observation target: even in a small telescope you can see the planet's ring system. The rings are the most important feature of the planet Saturn. However, they will become increasingly difficult to see in the coming months until Saturn's rings disappear completely in May 2025 – but only temporarily.
The planets Mercury and Mars cannot be seen in the night sky in December, but you can see two other planets with the help of a telescope: Uranus and Neptune.
Highlight in December: The most active shooting star stream of the year
The highlight of the month of December, however, is not the starry sky itself, but a stream of shooting stars. The Geminids are active from December 4 to December 20, reaching their maximum this year on the evening of December 14. For shooting star hunters, the timing couldn't be better: "That's shortly after the new moon, so apart from terrestrial lighting, the night will be dark," says Sven Melchert from the Association of Star Friends (VdS).
The Geminids also promise many shooting stars: Statistically, up to 150 shooting stars are expected at the peak. "Practically, there's maybe one every minute or two," Melchert told IPPEN's fr.de. MEDIA. The full moon is not until December 27th, so the shooting stars of the Geminids will by no means set in its light. We can only hope that the weather will play along – after the grey sky has strained the nerves of stargazers. "We amateur astronomers don't give up hope," says Melchert. (tab)