A close approach with Mars and dueling meteor showers cap off the year.
Published November 30, 2022 03:36PM EST
Sergey Egorov / Getty Images
Santa’s sleigh isn’t even packed yet, but the December sky already has a few celestial gifts at the ready to close out 2022. So warm your gloves by the fire, heat the hot chocolate, and bundle up for a month of spectacular meteor showers, stargazing, a close encounter with Mars, and the winter solstice.
Mars at Its Brightest and Closest Until 2033 (Dec. 1)
If you’ve gazed into the heavens over the last couple of months, you’ve likely noticed the ruddy hue of Mars growing steadily larger in the night sky. On December 1, the red planet will reach its brightest, largest, and closest approach to Earth, coming within 50.6 million miles. This is its closest approach since 2020 (38.6 million miles) and won’t be surpassed until June 2033 (39.3 million miles).
Should the weather conspire against you, don’t despair: Mars will reach opposition on December 8, with a nearly indiscernible drop in size and brightness in the days between. In fact, Mars will shine brightly (on December 1 at midnight, at its highest point above the horizon, even brighter than Saturn) for the whole month. Pick up some binoculars, drag out the telescope, and catch our closest planetary neighbor in all its glory!
Welcome the ‘Cold Full Moon’ (Dec. 7)
“The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave a luster of midday to objects below.
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.”
—’Twas the Night Before Christmas, Clement Clarke Moore
While the Old Farmer’s Almanac referred to December’s big lunar event as the Cold Full Moon, native people of North America also referred to it as the Big Spirit Moon, Blue Moon, and the Snow Moon. In New Zealand, where summer will soon officially kick off, this lunar season is described by the indigenous Māori as “Hakihea” or the “birds are now sitting in their nests.”
View the Cold Moon in all its full phase glory around 11:09 p.m. EDT on the evening of December 7.
Contemplate the Mysterious Geminids Meteor Shower (Dec. 14-15)
One of the most prolific meteor showers of the year, with 120 to 160 shooting stars per hour, the Geminids are also one of the most scientifically perplexing. Whereas most meteor showers come from periodic comets shedding debris as they pass around the sun, the Geminids are apparently tied to an asteroid named 3200 Phaethon.
“Of all the debris streams Earth passes through every year, the Geminids’ is by far the most massive,” NASA astronomer Bill Cooke said in a statement. “When we add up the amount of dust in the Geminid stream, it outweighs other streams by factors of 5 to 500.”
The problem is that the asteroid Phaethon simply isn’t large enough to account for this massive collection of debris. In fact, even though it ejects some dust as it heats during its rendezvous with the sun, the expelled mass accounts for only 0.01% of the total Geminids debris stream. The only other explanation scientists can come up with is that Phaethon was once much larger and much more chaotic with the amount of debris it spewed into space.
“We just don’t know,” Cooke said. “Every new thing we learn about the Geminids seems to deepen the mystery.”
To gaze upon this mystery for yourself, look up starting on the evening of December 14 around 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. local time. The peak of the shower is expected at roughly 2 a.m. local time and, despite a waning gibbous moon washing out the fainter meteors, it should be visible through the rest of the week. For a more detailed rundown on what to expect and where to look, read our in-depth guide on how to watch the Geminids meteor shower.
Celebrate the Winter Solstice (Dec. 21)
The winter solstice, that brief moment when the sun is exactly over the Tropic of Capricorn, will take place on December 21 at 4:47 p.m. EST.
While the winter solstice features the longest night of the year for those of us freezing in the Northern Hemisphere, it also brings with it the hope of more light in the days and months that follow. Because the sun is at its lowest arc in the sky, the 21st is also a time to get out and see extremely long shadows. “Your noontime shadow on the solstice is the longest it will be all year,” Treehugger’s Melissa Breyer points out. “Relish those long legs while you can.”
Catch the Ursids Meteor Shower (Dec. 21-22)
Despite having a tough act to follow after the spectacular Geminids, the annual Ursids meteor shower is still capable of throwing down up to 10 shooting stars per hour. Some years even surprise astronomers, with outbursts of 100 or more shooting stars per hour. For 2022, even the faintest will be visible, as an approaching new moon will help keep skies dark for viewing everything the Ursids send our way.
Originating from debris shed by Comet 8P/Tuttle, the Ursids appear to stream from the constellation Ursa Minor. Bundle up, get comfortable, and gaze up on the evening of the 21st or 22nd to catch the peak of this holiday shower.
A Galactic Festival of Lights Under a New Moon (Dec. 23)
Mirroring a world of twinkling string lights and candles below, the night sky will put on its own holiday display above with the arrival of December’s new moon. A new moon occurs when the illuminated side of the moon faces away from Earth, leaving skies free of moonlight and providing exceptional conditions for stargazing. While the new moon peaks on December 23, you’ll find dark skies available to enjoy for several days after—with ample time to thoroughly test out any telescope-related Christmas gifts.