Upstate New York Stargazing – December, 2017

Author's Note: The "Upstate New York Stargazing" series ran on the and websites (and limited use in-print) from 2016 to 2018. For the full list of articles, see the Upstate New York Stargazing page.

Upstate NY Stargazing in December: Geminid and Ursid meteor showers close out the year

Updated: Dec. 01, 2017, 12:32 p.m. | Published: Dec. 01, 2017, 11:32 a.m.

Special to

A monthly preview of stars you can observe over Upstate NY from Damian Allis, contributing writer

Winter has come again, marking the time when many pack up their equipment and seek indoor lectures over outdoor observing. The situation is even worse for amateur astronomers, as the arrival of the Winter Solstice on the 21st also marks the point at which the days start to get longer – and the observing nights start to get shorter. As for 2017, New York observers saw mixed results in the "with my own eyes" department. The solar eclipse was generally excellent, with random blocks of overcast observing time. Some of the more subtle phenomena, such as lunar occultations and one lunar eclipse, also received mixed reviews for observability. The recent Venus-Jupiter conjunction was a wash for most, and the general consensus for the year was that none of the meteor showers lived up to the attention they received.

Major NASA missions this year did provide focus for many observers and outreach lecturers, with Juno at Jupiter and Cassini at Saturn highlights both in imagery and hard science. The list of major events for 2018 is lengthy, including a number of lunar and solar eclipses. Sadly, New York will only be able to catch a sliver of only one of these – the total lunar eclipse occurring on Jan. 31st. That said, any reason to get outside is a good one – and if you know of any NY astronomy clubs or events that could use some additional promotion, please consider contacting the author with information.

Lectures And Observing Opportunities In Upstate/Central New York

New York has a number of astronomers, astronomy clubs, and observatories that host public sessions throughout the year. Announced sessions from respondent NY astronomy organizations are provided below for December. As wind and cloud cover are always factors when observing, please check the provided contact information and/or email the groups a day-or-so before an announced session, as some groups will also schedule weather-alternate dates. Also use the contact info for directions and to check on any applicable event or parking fees. And bring one more layer of clothing than you think you are going to need!

Astronomy Events Calendar

OrganizerLocationEventDateTimeContact Info
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadySenior Science DayDec. 43 – 4, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyOctagon Barn Star PartyDec. 157 – 9, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyNight Sky AdventureDec. 197 – 8:30, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyAAAA MeetingDec. 217:30 – 9, website
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterMember MeetingDec. 17 – 10, website
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterTelescope Tune-Up DayDec. 911 a.m. – 4, website
Baltimore WoodsMarcellusGeminid Meteor ShowerDec. 13/147 – 10, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalKAS Monthly MeetingDec. 137 – 9, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervillePublic Star GazingDec. 97:30 – 10, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervilleMVAS MeetingDec. 137:30 – 9, website
Syracuse Astronomical SocietySyracuseMeeting at OCCDec. 87 – 9, website

Lunar Phases

Full MoonThird QuarterNew MoonFirst Quarter
Dec. 3, 4:46 p.m.Dec. 10, 8:51 a.m.Dec. 18, 7:30 a.m.Dec. 26, 10:20 a.m.

The Moon's increasing brightness as Full Moon approaches washes out fainter stars, random meteors, and other celestial objects – this is bad for most observing, but excellent for new observers, as only the brightest stars (those that mark the major constellations) and planets remain visible for your easy identification. If you've never tried it, the Moon is a wonderful binocular object. The labeled image identifies features easily found with low-power binoculars.

Lunar features prominent in low-power binoculars.

Observing Guides

Items and events listed below assume you're outside and observing most anywhere in New York. The longer you're outside and away from indoor or bright lights, the better your dark adaption will be. If you have to use your smartphone, find a red light app or piece of red acetate, else set your brightness as low as possible.

The sky at 9:00 p.m. on December 15th, accurate all month except for the changing Moon position.

Evening Skies: The Summer Triangle has finally become a Summer Line, with only Deneb and bright Vega visible in the evenings this month. A new triangle takes up the slack, itself engulfed in a much larger geometric shape. The Winter Triangle – Sirius in Canis Major, Procyon in Canis Minor, and Betelgeuse in Orion, shares an edge with the much larger Winter Hexagon – Sirius, Procyon, Pollux in Gemini, Capella in Auriga, Aldebaran in Taurus, and Rigel in Orion.

With Orion and its cohort all above the horizon before midnight, learning eight constellations at once is as easy as following some lines within Orion's bowtie asterism.

Orion can guide you around its neighborhood. Red = belt stars to Sirius and Canis Major; Orange = Rigel and belt center to Castor and Pollux in Gemini; Yellow = Bellatrix and Betelgeuse to Canis Major; Green = Belt stars to Aldebaran and Taurus; Blue = Saiph and Orion's head to Capella in Auriga.

Morning Skies: There are no massive asterisms on the scale of the Winter Hexagon in the morning skies right now, but prominent and familiar shapes do abound. Moving from the Little Dipper to the Big Dipper, continue nearly the same distance to reach the hind end of Leo the Lion – look to the west for the backwards question mark that is its mane. In the same neck of the woods as the two Dippers is the Keystone asterism, marking the torso of the constellation Hercules.

The sky at 5:00 a.m. on December 15th, accurate all month except for the changing Moon position.

Planetary Viewing

Mercury: Mercury will be difficult to catch at the beginning and end of the month, then impossible to see directly for the rest of it. Mercury will slip below the western horizon soon after sunset on the 1st and 2nd, then rise before the morning sun after the 18th. It will be easiest to see Mercury on the 28th, when it rises at its earliest – close to 6 a.m.

Mercury low on the horizon on Dec. 28, with Jupiter and Mars still easy targets higher above.

Venus: If you want to see Venus before the end of the year, you have the first two mornings in December to do it. Just off of an impressive mid-November conjunction with Jupiter that many in New York couldn't see directly due to cloud cover, Venus is set to rise in the east soon before the morning Sun after Dec. 3. Those with a low horizon will have the 1st and 2nd, but that will end safe and easy Venus observations until 2018, when it becomes an exceptional target in February.

Venus low on the horizon on Dec. 1 and 2, with Jupiter and Mars still easy targets higher above.

Mars: Mars rises around 4 a.m. all month long, making it a quality target for early morning observers. With Jupiter rising earlier each morning, Mars will find itself being out-observed by binocular and telescope users mid-month. This situation will change after the 23rd, when Mars and Jupiter will share the field of view of 10×50 binoculars. Those planning ahead should set an alarm for the mornings of Jan. 6th and 7th, when the two planets will be exceptionally close to one another.

Both the 13th and 14th see the Moon, Mars and Jupiter in close proximity in the morning sky – a pleasant sight to end a long night of Geminid hunting.

Mars, Jupiter, and the Moon on the mornings of the 13th and 14th.

Jupiter: Jupiter is visible in the morning for all of December and will be an observing target at some point in the night until October of next year. Those with even poor-quality binoculars are able to see its four bright satellites – known as the "Galilean Moons" for their first observer – and the appearance of Jupiter as a disc of light instead of a simple pinpoint like all stars. Many websites, including the Jupiter's Moons webapp at Sky & Telescope, can provide you with the real-time and future positions of the fast-moving moons for any viewing opportunity you get this and every month.

When the weather doesn't cooperate, the NASA Juno mission (tw,fb) continues to impress with hard science and beautiful images.

Saturn: You have only a few days at the beginning of the month to observe Saturn low in the western sky, and those sessions must start very soon after sunset to do so. Saturn ends its time as an evening target well before mid-month even to those with very low and clear horizons. Observing Saturn after the first week will be very difficult due to the amount of sunlight still in the sky. Very close to the new year, Saturn will just begin to clear the horizon before the rising sun, likely still too difficult a target until mid-January, when it rises in the morning with time and dark skies to spare.

ISS And Other Bright Satellites

Satellite flyovers are commonplace, with several bright passes easily visible per hour in the nighttime sky, yet a thrill to new observers of all ages. Few flyovers compare in brightness or interest to the International Space Station. The flyovers of the football field-sized craft with its massive solar panel arrays and six current occupants can be predicted to within several seconds and take several minutes to complete.

December is excellent for ISS observing. From the 1st to the 18th, all flyovers are between 5 and 7:30 p.m., with many of them very bright and some of them occurring twice in an evening. Generally speaking, the first of the double flyovers will be significantly brighter than the second, giving you a 90 minute wait to compare and contrast. The ISS goes off our radar from the 18th to the 24th, after which it becomes a bright morning target into early 2018.

ISS Flyovers

DateBrightnessApprox. StartStart Direct.Approx. EndEnd Direct.
12/1extremely5:24 PMW/SW5:30 PMNE
12/1somewhat7:02 PMW/NW7:03 PMNW
12/2very6:09 PMW6:13 PMN
12/3very5:16 PMW5:22 PMNE
12/3somewhat6:54 PMNW6:55 PMNW
12/4moderately6:01 PMW/NW6:05 PMN
12/5moderately5:09 PMW/NW5:14 PMNE
12/5somewhat6:46 PMNW6:47 PMN/NW
12/6moderately5:54 PMNW5:57 PMN/NE
12/7moderately5:01 PMW/NW5:06 PMNE
12/7moderately6:38 PMNW6:39 PMN/NW
12/8moderately5:45 PMNW5:49 PMN/NE
12/9moderately6:29 PMNW6:31 PMN/NW
12/10very5:37 PMNW5:41 PMNE
12/10somewhat7:13 PMNW7:13 PMNW
12/11very6:21 PMNW6:23 PMN/NW
12/12very5:28 PMNW5:33 PME/NE
12/12somewhat7:05 PMW/NW7:06 PMW/NW
12/13extremely6:12 PMW/NW6:16 PMSE
12/14extremely5:20 PMNW5:26 PME/SE
12/14somewhat6:57 PMW6:59 PMSW
12/15very6:04 PMW/NW6:10 PMS/SE
12/16extremely5:11 PMW/NW5:17 PMSE
12/17somewhat5:56 PMW6:00 PMS
12/18moderately5:02 PMW/NW5:08 PMS/SE

Predictions courtesy of Times later in the month are subject to shifts – for accurate daily predictions, visit

Meteor Showers: Geminids, Peaking On The 13th/14th, and the Ursids, Peaking On The 21st/22nd

Meteor showers are the result of the Earth passing through the debris field of a comet or asteroid. As these objects approach the warming sun in their orbits, they leave tiny bits behind, usually no larger than grains of sand. The Earth plows through the swarm of these tiny particles at up-to 12 miles-per-second. High in the upper atmosphere, these particles burn up due to friction and ionize the air around them, producing the long light trails we see. We can predict the peak observing nights for a meteor shower because we know when and where in Earth's orbit we'll pass through the same part of the Solar System – this yearly periodicity is what let us identity and name meteor showers well before we ever had evidence of what caused them.

Gemini resides inside the Winter Hexagon, standing on Orion's Club. Once you've found the Little Dipper, you've found the Ursid radiant.

December features two showers active enough to mention. The first and most significant is the Geminids, a shower that originates from asteroid 3200 Phaethon – a rarity among the major showers, which largely originate from comets. The Geminids peak this year on the 13th/14th within a window that spans the 9th to the 16th. The Geminids benefit from a late-arriving waning crescent Moon at the peak, meaning observers should have plenty of dark sky for their searches. Statistically speaking, the shower may produce 120 meteors/hour at its peak. Those who've kept diligent watch of meteor showers from New York this year may take this value with an asteroid-sized grain of salt, as none of the major showers have lived up to their potentials.

The second, and much less prominent, meteor shower this December is the Ursids, originating from Comet 8P/Tuttle. The peak comes just a week after the Geminid peak, has only one-tenth the usual activity, and peaks when most are still frantically trying to get shopping done – all factors which make the Ursids an often overlooked conclusion to the year's meteor shower festivities.

How to observe: To optimize your experience, lie flat on the ground with your feet pointed towards the radiant and your head elevated – meteors will then appear to fly right over and around you.

Those interested in seeing a full list should check out the American Meteor Society meteor shower calendar.

Learn A Constellation: Auriga

Auriga and its Messiers, with nearest neighbors shown in the inset.

Auriga is one of the surviving 48 constellations from antiquity that fits right into modern times. Specifically, it is one of the few constellations to undergo a significant change in its professional career – not quite fast enough for the modern gig economy, but certainly changing with the times. Auriga, or its brightest star Capella, goes back in the written record to Mesopotamia, where the arrangement of stars was seen as a shepherd's stick, or crook. Other groups of the time associated Auriga with goats and herding, a theme that made its way to ancient Greek times before Auriga took on a second career as a charioteer. Many of the representations of Auriga beyond the Roman Empire and into modern times even show Auriga with chariot reins in one hand and two small goats in another – a reminder to perspective hires to always have one's resume in hand.

The stars of Capella, with the Sun (Sol) for size comparison. Image from wikipedia.

While Auriga itself may be diminished in significance by its proximity to Orion and Taurus, its bright Capella is prominent enough to explain the shepherd association. This shepherd star is not working alone, however – this bright pinpoint is the combined light of four stars in total. Two of the stars, Aa and aB, are both massive and in close proximity – their separation is only 75% that of the Sun-Earth distance – while a more distant pair of dimmer stars orbit these two much farther out.

Generally speaking, Auriga is represented as a lopsided hexagon. If your star chart differs from that, it is likely due to the inclusion of stars in the small triangle next to Capella in the overall shape. The triangle of Almaaz, Haedus, and Saclateni is prominent by itself, but is made more so by being so close to Capella. Some of the flock refuse to stray.

Binocular observers are treated to three identifiable open star clusters that resolve reasonably well in telescopes at low magnification. M36, M37, and M38 all sit about 4,000 light years away and contain fewer than 150 stars. They are made easy to find because the region of the Milky Way in the direction of the Winter skies is away from the galactic center. There's enough material to make finding galaxies more difficult, but not enough to obstruct the views of close objects in our neighborhood – a perfect vantage point for keeping track of such a distinguished herd.

Dr. Damian Allis is the director of CNY Observers and a NASA Solar System Ambassador. If you know of any other NY astronomy events or clubs to promote, please contact the author.

Original Posts:


Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Orion

As first appeared in the April 2012 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Image generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

Much can be said about the old hunter Orion. To Central New York observers, it had (until very recently) been the case that Orion made his way across the Night Sky during the coldest and least hospitable (to most nighttime observers) months of the year. Conditions would keep observers in hiding from him (some of the best CNY observers I know would risk surgical strikes on the Orion Nebula with their fastest to set-up and tear-down equipment). The abbreviated winter of 2011/2012 and reasonably early start of the SAS observing season have provided us with excellent opportunities in the past few months to make Orion The Hunter now the hunted. The mid-April observing session will be the last "official" opportunity to observe Orion before he disappears behind the Western horizon until the most nocturnal of us can next see him in our Eastern sky before sunrise in late August. I then take this opportunity to discuss Orion, one many CNY/SAS members may know the best by sight but may know the least by observing attention.

One of the topics covered in the 2011 SAS lecturing series was how we observe. Not the discussion of optics or the physics of planetary motion along the ecliptic, but the visual and mental mechanisms we use to translate the photonic triggers in our retina into mental pictures of celestial objects. Orion was the astronomical example I used to describe Pareidolia, how we impose a kind of order on things we see despite that order not being present in the actual collection. When you look at a cloud, you may see a face, an animal, or something your mind triggers as being something it clearly is not. I often placed the infamous "Face On Mars" next to the Constellation Orion to show clearly how we see what we think we see despite all reasonable evidence to the contrary (or the two can be mangled together, as shown below). The clouds may look like an animal, the "Face On Mars" looks unmistakably like a shadowed face, and Orion, as it happens, has looked like a human figure to virtually all peoples for as long as we have record of Constellations, the same way Scorpius has appeared as a scorpion to every civilization for which this little monster was part of the local biosphere.

Pareidolia is not just for cognitive neuroscience! One of the keys to learning the sky I discussed last year was to let your mind wander while staring at the sky and see if certain things jump out at you. The constellations are, for the most part, made up of the most reasonably bright star groupings, but if you see any type of geometry that makes some part of the sky easy to identify, run with it. This same philosophy may be responsible for the rise of the asterism, or "non-Constellation star grouping," as the distillation of mythological complexity into more practical tools for everyday living. For instance, I suspect everyone reading this can find the asterism known as the Big Dipper, but how many know all of the stars of its proper Constellation Ursa Major? Our southern tree line and Cortland obscure some of the grandeur of Sagittarius, which means we at the hill identify the location of its core (and several galactic highlights) by the easy-to-see "teapot." The body of Orion is a similar case of reduction-to-apparent, as the four stars marking his corners (clockwise from upper left)…

Betelgeuse (pronounced "Betelgeuse Betelgeuse Betelgeuse!" – marking his right shoulder; a red supergiant of very orange-ish color even without binoculars)

Bellatrix – the left shoulder (so you now know the Constellation is facing us as originally defined) – a blue giant known also known as the "Amazon Star"

Rigel – the left foot; a blue supergiant and the star system within which the aliens that make the Rigel Quick Finder reside

Saiph – the right foot; a star dim in the visible but markedly brighter in the ultraviolet. Saiph and Rigel are about the same distance away (Saiph 50 light years closer at 724 light years, a point to consider as you observe them both)

… and the three stars marking his belt (from left)…

Alnitak – A triple-star system 800 light years away with a blue supergiant as its anchor star

Alnilam – the farthest star of the belt at 1359 light years, this young blue supergiant burns as brightly as the other two, making the belt appear equally bright "al across"

Mintaka – 900 light years away, this is an eclipsing binary star system, meaning one star passes between us and the main star in its orbit (about every 5.7 days)

… are obvious to all, while the head and club stars require a longer look to identify.

Sticking to Naked Eye observing for a moment, Orion is not only famous for its historical significance and apparent brightness. Orion is ideally oriented to serve as an order of alignment for several nearby Constellations and is surrounded by enough bright stars and significant Constellations that curiosity alone should have you familiar with this part of the sky in very short order. As an April focus, it is of benefit that all of the Constellations we'll focus on either hit the horizon at the same time as Orion or they rest above him.

I've color-coded the significant stars marking notable Constellations in the image below. If you're standing outside on any clear night, the marked stars should all be quite obvious (we're talking a hands' width or two at arm's length). From right and working our way counterclockwise…

(RED) Following the belt stars to the right will lead you to the orange-ish star Aldebaran, marking the eye of Taurus the Bull. This is a dense part of the sky, as Aldebaran marks both the head of the Bull and also marks the brightest star in the Hyades star cluster (a gravitationally-bound open cluster 150 light years away composed of over 100 stars). Just to the right of this cluster is the "Tiny Dipper" known as the Pleiades (Messier 45), another dense star cluster worth observing at all magnifications. Both of these clusters are simultaneously easier and harder to find at present, as Venus ("1") is resting just above them, providing an easy way to find both clusters but plenty of reflected light to dull the brilliance of the two open clusters.

(ORANGE) Auriga, featuring Capella (the third brightest star in the Night Sky), is an oddly-shaped hexagon featuring a small triangle at one corner. Auriga, like Ursa Minor in last month's discussion, is made easy to find by the fact that the five marked stars are in an otherwise nondescript part of the sky (relatively dim generally, but brighter than anything in the vicinity). Venus will dull Hassaleh (Auriga's closest star to Venus and the two open clusters below it) but Elnath and Capella will be easy finds.

(YELLOW) Castor and Pollux, the twins of Gemini, are literally standing on Orion's club. Making an arrow from Mintaka (the right-most star of the belt) and Betelgeuse will lead you to Alhena (Pollux's left foot), after which a slow curve in a horseshoe shape will give you the remaining stars.

(GREEN) Canis Minor is two stars (which is boring), but is significant for containing Procyon, the 7th brightest star in the Night Sky (which means it will be an EASY find). But don't confuse it with Sirius, which is the big shimmering star in…

(BLUE) Canis Major is the larger of Orion's two dogs and contains Sirius ("The Dog Star"), a star so bright (magnitude −1.46) and so close (8.6 light years) that it appears not as a star but as a shimmering light. Some would say an airplane, others would say a hovering UFO. Part of my duties as president involve intermittently explaining that it is not the latter.

And, with respect, Monoceros is an old Constellation but not a particularly brilliant one. Having Canis Minor and Canis Major identified will make your identification of Monoceros quite straightforward.

We now turn to the other "stellar" objects in Orion, composed of three Messiers and one famous IC. M78 is a diffuse nebula almost one belt width above and perpendicular to Alnitak. You will know it when you see it. M43 and M42 (marked as "4" in the image below), on the other hand, are so bright and close that you can see their nebulosity in dark skies without aid of any optics.

M42 – The Orion Nebula is, in the right dark conditions, a Naked Eye sight in itself. For those of us between cities, even low-power binoculars bring out the wispy edges and cloudy core of this nebula. For higher-power observers, the resolving of Trapezium at M42's core serves as one of your best tests of astronomy binoculars (I consider the identification of four stars as THE proper test of a pair of 25×100's. Ideal conditions and a larger aperture will get you six stars total). You could spend all night just exploring the edges and depths of this nebula. You can take a look back at the Astro Bob article in the April 2012 edition of the Astronomical Chronicle (From My Driveway To Orion, Nature Works Wonders) for a more detailed discussion of this part of Orion.

M43 – de Mairan's Nebula is, truth be told, a lucky designation. M43 is, in fact, part of the M42 nebula that is itself a small part of the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex (not THAT'S a label). M43 owes its differentiation to a dark lane of dust that breaks M43 and M42, just as the lane of dust in our own Milky Way we know as the "Great Rift" splits what would otherwise be one continuous band of distant stars the same way a large rock in a stream causes the water to split in two and recombine on the other side.

Finally (and the one you'll work for), IC 434, the Horsehead Nebula, lies just to the lower-left of Alnitak (1). The Horsehead is itself a dark nebula, a region absorbing light to make it pronounced by its difference from the lighter regions around it. To put the whole area into perspective, The Horsehead is itself STILL within the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex. The sheath of Orion's Sword and nearly the entire belt is contained in this Complex, like dust being rattled off with each blow from Orion's club.

I close by taking a look at the perilously ignored club attempting to tear into Taurus. At present, asteroids surround Orion's Club like pieces of debris flying off after a hard impact. All are in the vicinity of 12th magnitude (so require a decent-sized mirror), and all are also moving at a sufficiently fast clip that their paths can be seen to change over several observing sessions (if, by miracle, enough clear days in a row can be had to make these measurements). I have highlighted the five prominent ones in the image below.

Is it an oddity to have Orion so full of asteroids? Certainly not! Orion is placed near the ecliptic, the apparent path of the planets in their motion around the Sun. Orion's club just barely grazes the ecliptic at the Gemini/Taurus border, two of the 12 Constellations of the Zodiac, the collection of Constellations that themselves mark the ecliptic. As nearly all of the objects in the Solar System lie near or within the disc of the Solar System, you expect to find all manner of smaller objects in the vicinity of the Zodiacal Constellations. In effect, Orion's club is kicking up different dust all year long as the asteroids orbit the Sun. You only have a few more weeks to watch the action happen before Orion's return in the very early early morning of the very late summer.

– Happy Hunting, Damian