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Night Sky: Visible Planets, Moon Phases & Events, December 2014

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 beginner telescope or binoculars will enhance some experiences and bring some otherwise invisible objects into view. Below, 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).

night sky watching
The night sky is more than just the moon and stars, if you know when and where to look.
Credit: Karl Tate/SPACE.com

Monthly skywatching information is provided to Space.com by Geoff Gaherty of Starry Night Education, the leader in space science curriculum solutions. Follow Starry Night on Twitter @StarryNightEdu.

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@space.com.

Night Sky Photos:

Videos

Sky Events December 2014

Moon Phases

Saturday, Dec. 6, 7:27 a.m. EST

Full Moon

The Full Moon of December is known as the “Oak Moon,” “Cold Moon,” or “Long Nights Moon.” It rises around sunset and sets around sunrise; this is the only night in the month when the moon is in the sky all night long. The rest of the month, the moon spends at least some time in the daytime sky.

Sunday, Dec. 14, 7:51 a.m. EST

Last Quarter Moon

The Last Quarter Moon rises around 11:45 p.m. and sets around 12:15 p.m. It is most easily seen just after sunrise in the southern sky.

New Moon, December 2014
Sunday, Dec. 21, 8:36 p.m. EST. The moon is not visible on the date of New Moon because it is too close to the sun, but can be seen low in the east as a narrow crescent a morning or two before, just before sunrise. It is visible low in the West an evening or two after New Moon.
Credit: Starry Night software

Sunday, Dec. 21, 8:36 p.m. EST

New Moon

The moon is not visible on the date of New Moon because it is too close to the sun, but can be seen low in the east as a narrow crescent a morning or two before, just before sunrise. It is visible low in the West an evening or two after New Moon.

Sunday, Dec. 28, 1:31 p.m. EST

First Quarter Moon

The First Quarter Moon rises around noon and sets around 1 a.m. It dominates the evening sky.

Observing Highlights

Monday, Dec. 1, 7 p.m. EST

Uranus and the Moon

The waxing gibbous moon will pass just north of the planet Uranus. Observers in northwestern Canada and eastern Alaska will see the moon occult Uranus, as in this view from Yellowknife, NWT, Canada.

Friday, Dec. 5, midnight EST

Aldebaran and the Moon

The nearly full moon passes just north of the red giant star Aldebaran and the Hyades star cluster. The bright Pleiades star cluster is above and towards the West.

Monday, Dec. 8, 11:20–11:25 p.m. EST

Double shadow transit on Jupiter

For a brief 5-minute period, the shadows of both Io and Europa will fall simultaneously on opposite limbs of Jupiter, the first of a series of double transit events culminating in a triple shadow and satellite transit on January 24, 2015.

Sunday, Dec. 14, 7 a.m. EST

Geminid meteor shower peaks

A last quarter moon will interfere with viewing this most reliable meteor shower. The best meteors will be visible about 90 degrees away from the radiant in Gemini.

Tuesday, Dec. 16, 1:12–02:02 a.m. EST

Double shadow transit on Jupiter

For 50 minutes the shadows of both Io and Europa will fall simultaneously on Jupiter. Note that this event occurs after midnight on Monday, Dec. 15.

Friday, Dec. 19, 1 hour before sunrise

Saturn and the Moon

Saturn makes a reappearance as a “morning star” close to the slender waning crescent moon, just before sunrise Friday morning.

Winter Solstice, December 2014
Sunday, Dec. 21, 6:03 p.m. EST. The sun reaches its southernmost position in the sky, and begins moving northward again.
Credit: Starry Night software

Sunday, Dec. 21, 6:03 p.m. EST

Winter solstice

The sun reaches its southernmost position in the sky, and begins moving northward again. New Moon is less than 3 hours away, so the moon is close by, and the sun is flanked by four planets (Mars, Venus, Mercury, and Saturn) and two dwarf planets (Pluto and Ceres). As happens every year at the solstice, the sun is only a few degrees away from “alignment” with the black hole at the center of our Galaxy. This is the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.

Sunday, Dec. 28, midnight EST

Uranus and the Moon

The waxing gibbous moon again passes just north of the planet Uranus. Observers in northeastern Asia, Alaska, and northern Canada will see the moon occult Uranus, as in this view from Yellowknife, NWT, Canada.

Planets

Mercury is too close to the sun to observe all month.

Venus reappears as an “evening star” in the southwestern sky just after sunset at the beginning of the month.

Mars moves from Sagittarius into Capricornus on the 4th low in the southwestern sky, moving behind the sun. Mars is at its closest to the sun (perihelion) on the 12th, and spring is well advanced in its southern hemisphere.

Jupiter now rises in mid-evening in the constellation Leo, and shines brightly in the southern sky the rest of the night. A two-month series of double shadow transits begins on Dec. 8.

Saturn reappears in as a “morning star” in Libra in the southeastern dawn sky.

Uranus, December 2014
Uranus is well placed in Pisces in the evening sky, setting after midnight. Two close approaches by the moon on the 1st and 28th will make it easy to spot.
Credit: Starry Night software

Uranus is well placed in Pisces in the evening sky, setting after midnight. Two close approaches by the moon on the 1st and 28th will make it easy to spot.

Neptune is in the early evening sky in Aquarius, setting in late evening.

Skywatching Terms

  • 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.
  • 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 faint objects, such as meteors or dim stars, give your eyes at least 15 minutes to adjust to the darkness.
  • Light Pollution: Even from a big city, one can see the moon, a handful of bright stars and sometimes the brightest planets. But to fully enjoy the heavens — especially a meteor shower, the constellations, or to see the amazing swath across the sky that represents our view toward the center of the Milky Way Galaxy — rural areas are best for night sky viewing. If you’re stuck in a city or suburban area, a building can be used to block ambient light (or moonlight) to help reveal fainter objects. If you’re in the suburbs, simply turning off outdoor lights can help.
  • Prepare for skywatching: If you plan to be out for more than a few minutes, and it’s not a warm summer evening, dress warmer than you think necessary. An hour of observing a winter meteor shower can chill you to the bone. A blanket or lounge chair will prove much more comfortable than standing or sitting in a chair and craning your neck to see overhead.
  • Daytime skywatching: When Venus is visible (that is, not in front of or behind the sun) it can often be spotted during the day. But you’ll need to know where to look. A sky map is helpful. When the sun has large sunspots, they can be seen without a telescope. However, it’s unsafe to look at the sun without protective eyewear. See our video on how to safely observe the sun, or our safe sunwatching infographic.

Further Reading

Moon Phases: How the lunar cycle works, from full moon to new moon. Also find out when is the next full moon.

Constellations: The history of the Zodiac constellations and their place in night sky observing.

Lunar Eclipses: How they work, plus find out when’s the next lunar eclipse.

Solar Eclipses: How they work, the types, and when the next one occurs.

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