The Stars: December

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The Independent Online

After midnight on 13 December, look out for what promises to be the year's best meteor shower.

The shooting stars appear to emanate from the constellation of the Heavenly Twins, which is how they get to be called the Geminids. If you're lucky, and have a very dark location, you may be able to spot up to 100 meteors an hour.

Phaethon has now been confirmed as the parent body of the Geminids. But is it an asteroid or a comet? Like an asteroid, Phaethon is a dark, rocky body, apparently totally different from a comet that emits jets of gas from its icy nucleus. But now, this has been thrown into doubt. The smart money is on Phaethon being a "dead comet": one whose icy covering has boiled away under temperatures of 1,000C. Phaethon yields the chunkiest meteors of all. So look out for some beautiful, brilliant, slow-moving shooting stars on 13-14 December.

What's up this month

There will be a total eclipse of the Moon on 21 December. The Moon moves into the Earth's shadow at 6.32am. But if you look low in the north-west, you may be able to see the Moon with a chunk taken out of it. Totality lasts from 7.40am to 8.53am; the eclipse ends at 10.02am.

The planet Jupiter is still lording it over the sky in the south-west. Look out for Saturn in the morning sky. It rises at about 2am in Virgo, just above the constellation's brightest star, Spica.

The most stunning event of the morning is the rising of Venus at 4am. Our nearest neighbour is at its most dazzling this month, and it may even cast a shadow. The winter constellations of Orion, Taurus and Canis Major are now centre-stage, and brilliant Capella in Auriga is climbing to preside over the heavens at the zenith.


5: 5.36pm: New Moon

13: 1.59pm: Moon at First Quarter

13-14: Maximum of Geminid meteor shower

21: 8.13am: Full Moon; 6.32am-10.02am: total eclipse of Moon; 11.38pm: Winter Solstice

28: 4.18am: Moon at Last Quarter

'Stargazing 2011' by Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest (Philip's, £6.99) is your essential guide to the night sky next year.