December is a favorite month for many stargazers. After all, cold air isn’t hazy like warmer, humid air so it’s easier to see stars and planets. Plus, as the nights get dark earlier, there’s more time for stargazing.
This December also offers two more reasons for stargazers to rejoice.
First, on December 8, Mars will be in opposition, which means Earth will be between Mars and the sun. Consequently, Mars will appear bright and large, making it easy to see.
Then, the Geminid meteor shower, which occurs between November 19 and December 24, will peak on December 14. You can expect to see up to 120 meteors per hour that night, according to NASA.
All About Mars
Mars, the fourth planet from the sun, is a dusty, cold, desert world with a very thin atmosphere. It also has a blood-red color, which explains why the ancient Greeks named the planet “Ares” — after the god of war — and why the Romans also named the planet after their god of war, “Mars.”
There is, however, a simple explanation for Mars’s red appearance. Its surface is covered in dust and rock that has a high degree of iron. As the iron minerals oxidize, or rust, they become red, according to Space.com.
To put Mars’s size in perspective, if the sun were as tall as a typical front door, Mars would be about as big as an aspirin tablet, NASA explains.
How To View Mars In Opposition
“Opposition” is the scientific name for what happens when Earth is directly between the sun and a planet. In the case of Mars, it happens about every 2 years.
Here’s what happens during Mars’s opposition: First, Mars will rise above Earth’s eastern horizon as the sun sets in the west. Then, after being visible in the sky all night, Mars will set in the west as the sun rises in the east.
To view Mars in opposition, all you need to do is look east above the horizon about an hour after dark. Mars will be the reddish-orange heavenly body. As the evening wears on, Mars will move toward the south.
The red planet will be at its highest point in the sky, and easiest to see, on December 8 at 11:29 p.m. Eastern Time, according to Time and Date. You can use Time and Date’s table of visible planets to see when Mars, and other planets, rise and set in your time zone.
During opposition, Mars will be very bright. If you use a telescope, and the sky is clear, you should be able to see Mars’s major features — including its white polar cap — according to EarthSky.
Why We See Meteor Showers
When comets orbit the sun, they leave what can be considered a “dusty trail” behind.
The individual pieces of debris in this trail are often no larger than grains of sand. Every year, the Earth passes through these debris trails on its own orbit of the sun. When those bits of debris collide with Earth’s atmosphere, they disintegrate and create colorful streaks we call meteors.
What’s different about the Geminid meteor shower, however, is the meteors in this shower come from an asteroid rather than a comet.
Skywatchers first noticed the Geminid meteor shower in the mid-1800s, but the shower’s source wasn’t known until NASA’s Infrared Astronomy Satellite spotted a new asteroid in 1983, nearly 100 years after the shower’s discovery. That asteroid, now known as 3200 Phaethon, measures 5.1 kilometers (about 3.2 miles) in diameter and takes approximately 1.4 years to orbit the Sun, NASA explains.
Each year in December, the Earth passes through the debris left by 3200 Phaethon, which creates the Geminid meteor shower. It gets its name because its meteors appear to emanate near the Gemini constellation.
How To See The Meteor Shower
The Geminids are not only considered the best meteor shower of the year because the meteors are visible all night. It’s also considered the best meteor shower for kids and grandkids because the meteors are visible earlier, around 9 or 10 p.m. local time, NASA explains.
That said, the optimal time to view the Geminid meteor shower will be around 2 a.m. local time, according to EarthSky.
You can use Time and Date’s Interactive Meteor Shower Sky Map to help determine where and when you should look for the Geminid meteor shower in your location.
While you don’t need any special equipment or skills to see the meteors, it does help if you view them from a secluded and dark space. You can use EarthSky’s interactive map to find dark places that offer optimal stargazing.
Be sure to dress for the weather. You may even want to take a comfortable chair and blankets or sleeping bags if you plan to be outside for long periods.
Next, once you’re in your viewing spot, allow your eyes 15–20 minutes to adapt to the dark. Then, all you need to do is lay down or look up to watch the meteors.
Finally, avoid checking your cell phone or other devices. They may not seem bright, but your eyes will need to adapt to the night sky again after looking at the device’s light.
Be sure to also read all of our stargazing content, including: