It’s been a long and terrible year. We all need some space. Like clockwork the cosmos will oblige, offering us three spectacular sky events in December 2020 to help us all see-off a difficult year in style.
Here’s what’s happening:
- The year’s best meteor shower, the Geminids, on the night of December, 13-14, 2020.
- A total eclipse of the Sun on December 14, 2020.
- Two planets shining as one throughout December, at their closest on December 21, 2020.
Can you see them all from your home? Yes—though one of them you will likely have to watch online.
Here’s everything you need to know about what’s happening, when it’s happening, and how to get the best view from wherever you are:
1. Multi-colored meteors
When: Sunday/Monday, December 13-14, 2020
Where to look: all-sky
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Most astronomers dislike the term “meteor shower” because, well, meteors don’t tend to “shower” at all, but occasionally “streak.” However, the Geminids can be different. Despite August’s perseids getting more attention because of the northern hemisphere’s warmer nights at that time of year, it’s December’s Geminids that are usually the annual highlight of the meteor-watcher’s calendar.
It is possible to see up to 150 “shooting stars” per hour—mostly yellow, but some green and blue—during the peak of the Geminids, but to get anywhere even close to that you need absolute darkness and a lot of patience. At least the Moon plays ball this year, becoming a New Moon—so invisible—as the Geminids peak.
However, even if you’re at home in a city you should see some “shooting stars” if the sky is clear.
You definitely don’t need binoculars if you want to see “shooting stars” since you want as wide-eyed a view as possible of a big sky, but if you’re quick you can use them to get a close-up on a meteor’s colorful smoky trail.
2. A total eclipse of the Sun
When: Monday, December 14, 2020
Where: southern Chile and Argentina
Expect live streams to burgeon online in advance of the year’s celestial highlight—the grand sight of a total solar eclipse.
During the event a New Moon will pass across the face of the Sun. The Moon is 400 times smaller than the Sun, but because the Sun is 400 times further away, the match-up can be perfect. A shadow is thrown that races across the Earth’s surface. On December 14, 2020 that moon-shadow will take 24 minutes to cross southern South America, throwing intro darkness areas of southern Chile and Argentinean Patagonia.
Locations near the centerline of the “path of totality” will experience 2 minutes 9 seconds of totality in the middle of the day. It’s going to be a similar event to 2017’s “Great American Eclipse,” with viewers able to glimpse the Sun’s white corona spilling-out into space as temperatures plunge and birds go crazy.
Watch online, for sure, but remember that it’s nothing like experiencing a total solar eclipse. So when is the next eclipse? The next one is in Antarctica on December 4, 2021 and, after that, in Western Australia on April 20, 2023. A total solar eclipse will next be visible in North America on April 8, 2024, when locations from Texas to Canada’s Atlantic coast will experience a 4 minute+ totality.
3. A ‘great conjunction’ of Jupiter and Saturn
When: Monday, December 21, 2020
Where to look: southwest after sunset
It’s been a great year for planet-watching, with first Venus dominating the evening skies only to be replaced by Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. It’s almost time for the two gas giant planets to disappear behind the Sun, but before that happens there’s destined to be a spectacular finale.
Saturn is twice as far from Earth as Jupiter this month, but for a few days the two planets will appear to be next to each other in the post-sunset night sky.
Although you can look to the southwest after dark each night during December to see the two planets inching close together, if you observe them on December 21, 2020 you’re going to struggle to separate them. Less than 0.1º apart on that date, you’ll be able to get both planets—and Jupiter’s four large Moons—into the field of view of a pair of binoculars or a small telescope.
A “great conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn occurs every 19.6 years, but not since 1623 has one been this close, and not since 1226 has one been this easy to observe.
In preparation for December 21, find a place close to home where you can see low down to the southwest horizon about 30 minutes after sunset where you are. You’ll only have about an hour to see them before they sink below the horizon.
Disclaimer: I am the editor of WhenIsTheNextEclipse.com
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.