Santa's sleigh isn't even packed yet, but the December sky already has a few celestial gifts at the ready to close out 2019. So warm up your gloves by the fire, heat up the hot chocolate, and bundle up for a month of spectacular meteor showers, stargazing, special space deliveries and the winter solstice.
Russia makes a special delivery (Dec 1.)
Russia's unmanned Progress cargo spacecraft is used to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. (Photo: NASA [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)
A Russian Soyuz rocket will launch the 74th Progress cargo delivery spacecraft to the International Space Station around 6:29 a.m. EST. The Progress MS-13 will be launched atop a Soyuz-2.1a carrier rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. This is only the fourth time Russia's Roscosmos space agency has attempted such a speedy delivery; what used to take two days of traveling has been cut down to just 3.5 hours, similar to their last delivery in July.
The spacecraft is expected to deliver a few tons of supplies to the station, most of it being propellant, experiments and much-needed necessities to keep the astronauts well-stocked. Almost exactly three years ago, a Russian cargo ship malfunctioned just six minutes after launch, with most of the debris burning up in the atmosphere before crashing over a remote part of Siberia. But officials are confident that the upcoming delivery will be as successful as Santa's.
Bask in the glow of the full Cold Moon (Dec. 12)
Moonrise over Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming. (Photo: Tom Koerner/USFWS [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)
"The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow, Gave a lustre 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 be underway, this lunar season is described as "birds are now sitting in their nests."
Catch the Cold Moon in all its full-phase glory around 12:12 a.m. EDT.
Gaze upon the mysterious Geminids meteor shower (Dec. 13-14)
The Geminid meteors put on a good show — if you're willing to brave the cold. (Photo: Asim Patel [CC by SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons)
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 percent 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 Dec. 13 around 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. local time. The peak is expected at roughly 2 a.m. local time and will be visible all weekend. For a more detailed rundown on what to expect and where to look, read How to watch the Gemind meteor shower.
SpaceX takes off (Dec. 15)
The Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket lifts off from Vandenberg AFB SLC-4E with the CASSIOPE satellite in 2013. (Photo: SpaceX [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)
Delayed from Nov. 11, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch the JCSAT 18/Kacific 1 communications satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The satellite is jointly owned by SKY Perfect JSAT Corporation of Japan and Kacific Broadband Satellites of Singapore, and will provide mobile and broadband services across the Asia-Pacific region.
Celebrate the winter solstice (Dec. 21)
A hiker in Iceland observing the winter solstice in December 2014. (Photo: Hafsteinn Robertsson [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)
The winter solstice, that brief moment when the sun is exactly over the Tropic of Capricorn, will take place on Dec. 21 at 11:19 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," MNN's Melissa Breyer points out. "Relish those long legs while you can."
Catch the Ursids meteor shower (Dec. 21-22)
While the Ursids have a tough act to follow after the spectacular Geminids, this annual meteor shower is still capable of throwing down up to 10 shooting stars per hour. This year, "we're not expecting an outburst," Cooke told Space.com. "But the Ursids have surprised us before."
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.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was first published in December 2017.