February 22, 2024

Star clusters, the Orion Nebula and lots of shooting stars – that’s what you can see in the sky in December

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The cold, clear winter nights of December have a lot to offer: the stars twinkle, the planets shine, and there’s the best shooting star night of the year.

Frankfurt – December is one of the best months to enjoy the starry sky. This is due, among other things, to the fact that the sun sets in the afternoon and therefore the stars and planets can 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. Many bright stars and constellations shine in the sky on a clear December night.

For example, there are the winter constellations Orion, Taurus, Gemini and Foreman, which are in the sky in the early evening and bring with them some interesting things to observe. The “sword” of the Orion constellation consists of the Orion Nebula (M42). The emission nebula can be seen with the naked eye, and a small telescope can be used to see the first details.

The Pleiades is an open star cluster in the constellation Taurus. They are also called the “Seven Stars” or “Seven Sisters” and can be seen with the naked eye. (Archive photo) © IMAGO/ingimage

The Orion Nebula is a star-forming region where researchers have recently discovered so-called “JuMBOs” – binary objects the size of Jupiter. Also interesting is the glowing, reddish left shoulder star of the Orion constellation: it is the red giant Betelgeuse, which has been suspected several times in recent years of soon exploding as a supernova.

Starry sky in December: The 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 be seen in the east after sunset at the beginning of December. The open star cluster consists of at least 400 stars and is more than 400 light-years from Earth. Because it is dominated by seven bright stars, it is called the “Seven Stars” or “Seven Sisters.” Hyades is also an open star cluster in the constellation Taurus. It consists of about 350 stars and is about 150 light-years from Earth.

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However, the most visible star in the winter sky may be Sirius. At the beginning of December it rises at around 10pm, and later in the month it appears in the sky a little earlier. It is particularly noticeable because it glows bluish-white and tends to flash colorfully. For this reason it is sometimes confused with a UFO and is reported to the appropriate reporting offices. Sirius belongs to the constellation Canis Major and is the brightest star in the night sky. It is actually a binary star system at a distance of 8.7 light-years.

As Sirius rises, the entire winter hexagram can be seen in the sky. It consists of the following stars:

  • Capella (in the Foreman constellation)
  • Pollux (in the constellation Gemini)
  • Procyon (in the constellation Canis Lesser)
  • Sirius (in the constellation Canis Major)
  • Rigel (in the constellation Orion)
  • Aldebaran (in the constellation Taurus)

Three planets can be seen with the naked eye in the December sky

Only a few celestial objects shine brighter than Sirius – but there are a few worth admiring 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, and two others require binoculars. Venus is the brightest planet in the sky and can be seen as the “morning star” in the morning sky. It rises in the east around 4 a.m. on December 1 and can be seen in the sky until after dawn. However, the rising of Venus moves slightly backwards each day – at the end of the month it does not rise until after 5am.

One of the most striking winter constellations is Orion.  The Orion Nebula can be seen (
One of the most striking winter constellations is Orion. The Orion Nebula (“Orion’s Belt”) can be seen with the naked eye. (Archive photo) © imago/StockTrek Images

Jupiter, on the other hand, is completely different: the second brightest planet rises in the afternoon and can therefore be seen in the east from early dusk. It’s an interesting object that can be observed even with small binoculars, where you can then see its four larger moons. The Galilean moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto appear to dance around their planet – and sometimes one of the moons can be seen disappearing behind Jupiter and then reappearing later. It is also sometimes possible to see the shadow of one of the planet’s moons.

Saturn sets early every day

Saturn can also still be seen in the sky in December. However, at the beginning of the month it is set around 10:30 p.m. On New Year’s Eve, the planet disappears below the horizon in the west at nine in the evening. Saturn is also a noteworthy target: even with a small telescope, you can see the planet’s ring system. The rings are the most important feature of 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.

Mercury and Mars cannot be seen in the night sky in December, but you can use a telescope to see two other planets: Uranus and Neptune.

December Highlights: The most active star stream of the year

However, the highlight of December is not the starry sky itself, but a stream of meteors. Geminis are active from December 4 to 20 and reach their maximum this year on the evening of December 14. For star hunters, the timing couldn’t be better: “This is shortly after the new moon, so apart from the terrestrial illumination, the night will be dark,” says Sven Melchert of the Friends of the Stars (VdS) association.

The Geminids also promise a lot of meteors: statistically, up to 150 meteors are expected to peak. “In practice, there is probably one every minute or two,” Melchert confirms to fr.de from IPPEN.MEDIA. The moon won’t be full until December 27 – so Gemini’s shooting stars won’t be lost in their light by any means. We can only hope the weather cooperates – after gray skies left stargazers nerve-racking. “We amateur astronomers don’t give up hope,” Melchert says. (unpaid bill)