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Kiss the Sky Tonight -- Month of December 2021

Posted by Guy Pirro   12/04/2021 01:31AM

Kiss the Sky Tonight -- Month of December 2021

Also known by the popular name the "Little Dumbbell Nebula," M76 or NGC 650, is one of the fainter objects listed in Charles Messier's 18th century Catalog of Nebulae and Star Clusters. Like its better-known namesake M27 (the Dumbbell Nebula), M76 is recognized as a planetary nebula - a gaseous shroud cast off by a dying sunlike star. The nebula itself is thought to be shaped more like a donut, its central box-like appearance due to our nearly edge-on view. Gas expanding more rapidly away from the donut hole produces the more extensive, far flung material in this remarkable image that uses narrow-band filters to highlight the emission from hydrogen (in red) and oxygen atoms (in greenish blue). In particular, complex oxygen emission features are seen above and below the main nebula to a degree not detected in most images of M76. Distance estimates place M76 about 3 to 5 thousand light-years away toward the constellation Perseus, making the nebula over a light-year in diameter. [Video and Content Credits: NASA, the Office of Public Outreach – Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), JPL – Caltech, Preston Dyches, Christopher Harris, and Lisa Poje] [Image Credit: NASA, Don Goldman].


Kiss the Sky Tonight -- Month of December 2021

Welcome to the night sky report for December 2021 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. Step outside on a cold December night when the stars shine bright to find the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, and Cepheus. They will help you locate a binary star system (Eta Cassiopeiae), a fan-shaped open star cluster (M103 or NGC 581), and a variable star (Mu Cephei). See three planets after sunset, and then say goodbye to Venus as the "Evening Star" at the end of the month. Hunt for newly discovered Comet Leonard in the early morning through mid-month. Finally, get up early on December 14th to watch for Geminid meteors after local moonset, around 2:00 AM. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.

The long, frosty nights of December make for good sky gazing when the stars shine clear and bright. Face north to find the Big Dipper scraping the northern horizon.

The constellation of Cassiopeia the queen swings high on the other side of Polaris, the North Star. The queen’s star pattern forms a clear “W” or “M” shape in the sky. Snuggled in the M pattern is Eta Cassiopeiae, a binary with a pale yellow Sun-sized star and a less massive orange companion.

Also tucked within the M pattern is the open star cluster M103 or NGC 581. Binoculars or a small telescope show a fan-shaped group of about 170 stars, with a red giant star near the center.

To the east of Cassiopeia lies the fainter constellation of Cepheus, the king. His dim shape looks like the outline of a house. Along the base of the house lies Mu Cephei, a red giant also known as the Garnet Star for its deep red color. It’s also a variable star, changing in brightness over hundreds to thousands of days.





To one side of the house’s base sits NGC 6946, a ragged spiral galaxy that appears as a ghostly patch of light in modest telescopes. NGC 6946 is known as the Fireworks Galaxy because of the frequency of supernovas occurring within it -- ten within the past century. By comparison, the larger Milky Way averages just two per century.

To the west of Cassiopeia we find the sprawling pattern of Perseus, the Greek hero and slayer of

Medusa, whose head he carries. Among Perseus’ stars lies the open star cluster M34. Small telescopes or binoculars show a concentrated scatter of about 100 stars.

Face north to locate the Big Dipper and find galaxy M82. In binoculars and small telescopes, the galaxy appears as a thin rod of light. M82, seen edge-on, experienced a tremendous burst of star formation after an encounter with another galaxy.

Face east to find Orion the hunter with his shining belt rising over the early winter landscape. The glittering stars of winter rise with Orion and promise many fine stargazing nights to come.





On December 6th through the 10th, look westward following sunset for the Moon visiting Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter in turn. The Moon's crescent fills out as it appears higher in the sky each evening over the course of the week.

Enjoy the view of dazzling Venus as the "Evening Star" while it lasts, though. Our cloud-covered neighbor planet will sink ever closer to the horizon during the month, disappearing for most of us by New Years Day. It'll reappear in late January as a morning planet preceding the sunrise and won't be back in evening skies until December of next year.

Next in December, there's a recently discovered comet on its way into the inner solar system that might be worth trying to observe. It's known as Comet Leonard, and it will be at its closest to Earth on December 12th, just a couple of weeks before it reaches its closest distance from the Sun. 

Comets are notoriously difficult to predict in terms of brightness and visibility. Comet Leonard is predicted to peak at a brightness that will probably require binoculars to spot it. There's a chance it could be bright enough to see with the unaided eye, but again, with comets, you really never know.

In the first couple of weeks of December, Comet Leonard can be found in the east before sunrise, passing between Arcturus and the handle of the Big Dipper. It approaches the horizon right around the time of its closest approach to Earth, meaning it'll likely be brighter but more challenging to observe. It then switches over to being an evening object after around Dec. 14th, for just a little while after the Sun sets – as it begins its long haul outward from the Sun again, progressively fading in brightness.

Finally, the Geminid meteors are a highlight of December skies each year. This year's meteor shower peaks overnight on December 13th and 14th. Apart from the weather, the phase of the Moon is usually the main factor in whether a meteor shower will have good viewing any given year. This year, the Moon will be almost 80 percent full at the peak of the Geminids, which isn't ideal. However, that bright Moon will set somewhere around 2:00 AM wherever you're located, leaving a couple of hours for meteor watching before dawn.

The meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Gemini, which you'll find high in the west. While most annual meteor showers are caused by Earth passing through trails of dust-sized particles of comet debris, the Geminids are one of the few meteor showers that are caused by debris from an asteroid that crosses Earth's orbit – in this case, one called Phaethon.

Recently, NASA scientists shared findings that suggest the difference between an asteroid and a comet might be less clear than we realized, with fizzing sodium on Phaethon playing the same role as vaporizing ice on comets.

The night sky is always a celestial showcase. Explore its wonders from your own backyard.

The following Deep Sky Objects are found in constellations that peak during the month. Some can be viewed with a small telescope, but the majority will require a moderate to large telescope. The following is adapted from my personal viewing list: "The Guy Pirro 777 Best and Brightest Deep Sky Objects."


Constellation: Camelopardalis

IC 342                          Galaxy                         C5

IC 356                          Galaxy                         P127

IC 361                          Open Cluster               P213

IC 3568                        Planetary Nebula         P128

NGC 1501                    Planetary Nebula        Herschel 400 H53-4

NGC 1502                    Open Cluster               Herschel 400 H47-7

NGC 1708                    Open Cluster               P129

NGC 1961                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H747-3

NGC 2146                    Galaxy                         P130

NGC 2336                    Galaxy                         P70

NGC 2403                    Galaxy                         C7, Herschel 400 H44-5

NGC 2408                    Open Cluster               P131

NGC 2655                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H288-1


Constellation: Cassiopeia

IC 10                            Galaxy                          P77

IC 59                           Diffuse Nebula              P21 - Gamma Cassiopeiae Nebula (West)

IC 63                            Diffuse Nebula             P22 – Gamma Cassiopeiae Nebula (East)

IC 166                          Open Cluster                 P217

IC 1795                        Diffuse Nebula              P122

IC 1805                        Emission Nebula           P2 Heart Nebula

IC 1848                        Emission Nebula           P3 Soul Nebula

IC 1871                        Diffuse Nebula              P136

NGC 103                      Open Cluster                 P137

NGC 129                      Open Cluster                Herschel 400 H79-8

NGC 133                      Open Cluster                P138

NGC 136                      Open Cluster                Herschel 400 H35-6

NGC 146                      Open Cluster                P204

NGC 147                      Galaxy                         C17 Satellite of Andromeda

NGC 185                      Galaxy                         C18, Herschel 400 H707-2 Satellite of Andromeda

NGC 189                      Open Cluster                P5

NGC 225                      Open Cluster                Herschel 400 H78-8 Sailboat Cluster

NGC 278                      Galaxy                          Herschel 400 H159-1

NGC 281                      Emission Nebula          P4 Pacman Nebula

NGC 381                      Open Cluster                Herschel 400 H64-8

NGC 436                      Open Cluster                Herschel 400 H45-7

NGC 457                      Open Cluster                C13, Herschel 400 H42-1 Owl Cluster

NGC 559                      Open Cluster                C8, Herschel 400 H48-7

NGC 581                      Open Cluster                M103

NGC 609                      Open Cluster                P219

NGC 637                      Open Cluster                Herschel 400 H49-7

NGC 654                      Open Cluster                Herschel 400 H46-7

NGC 659                      Open Cluster                Herschel 400 H65-8

NGC 663                      Open Cluster                C10, Herschel 400 H31-6

NGC 1027                    Open Cluster                Herschel 400 H66-8

NGC 7635                    Diffuse Nebula             C11 Bubble Nebula

NGC 7654                    Open Cluster                M52

NGC 7788                    Open Cluster                P139

NGC 7789                    Open Cluster                Herschel 400 H30-6 White Rose Cluster

NGC 7790                    Open Cluster                Herschel 400 H56-7

NGC 7795                    Open Cluster                P23


Constellation: Cepheus

Caldwell 9                   Diffuse Nebula               C9 Cave Nebula

IC 1396                        Open Cluster              P6 Elephant Trunk Cluster

NGC 40                        Planetary Nebula        C2 Herschel 400 H58-4 Bow Tie Nebula

NGC 188                      Open Cluster               C1

NGC 2300                    Galaxy                         P220

     - NGC 2276             Galaxy                              - Paired with P220

NGC 6939                    Open Cluster                Herschel 400 H42-6

NGC 6946                    Galaxy                          C12, Herschel 400 H76-4 Fireworks Galaxy

NGC 7023                    Open Cluster                C4 Iris Nebular Cluster

NGC 7142                    Open Cluster                 Herschel 400 H66-7

NGC 7160                    Open Cluster                 Herschel 400 H67-8

NGC 7226                    Open Cluster                 P140

NGC 7235                    Open Cluster                 P7

NGC 7261                    Open Cluster                 P8

NGC 7380                    Open Cluster                 Herschel 400 H77-8

NGC 7510                    Open Cluster                 Herschel 400 H44-7

NGC 7762                    Open Cluster                 P141


Constellation: Eridanus

IC 1898                        Galaxy                         P228

NGC 1084                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H64-1

NGC 1232                    Galaxy                         P28

NGC 1291                    Galaxy                         P29

NGC 1300                    Galaxy                         P81

NGC 1332                    Galaxy                         P82

NGC 1407                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H107-1

NGC 1535                    Planetary Nebula         Herschel 400 H26-4

NGC 1537                    Galaxy                         P229 


Constellation: Perseus

IC 348                          Open Cluster                P95

IC 2003                        Planetary Nebula          P237

NGC 650                      Planetary Nebula          M76 Little Dumbell Nebula

NGC 651                      Planetary Nebula          Herschel 400 H193-1 Part of M76

NGC 744                      Open Cluster                P96

NGC 869                      Open Cluster               C14a, Herschel 400 H33-6 Double Cluster (West)

NGC 884                      Open Cluster               C14b, Herschel 400 H34-6 Double Cluster (East)

NGC 957                      Open Cluster               P97

NGC 1023                    Galaxy                        Herschel 400 H156-1

NGC 1039                    Open Cluster               M34 Spiral Cluster

NGC 1220                    Open Cluster               P238

NGC 1245                    Open Cluster               Herschel 400 H25-6

NGC 1275                    Galaxy                         C24 Perseus A Seyfert Galaxy

NGC 1342                    Open Cluster               Herschel 400 H88-8

NGC 1444                    Open Cluster               Herschel 400 H80-8

NGC 1496                    Open Cluster               P174

NGC 1499                    Diffuse Nebula            P44 - California Nebula

NGC 1513                    Open Cluster               Herschel 400 H60-7

NGC 1528                    Open Cluster               Herschel 400 H61-7

NGC 1545                    Open Cluster               Herschel 400 H85-8

NGC 1582                    Open Cluster               P45

NGC 1605                    Open Cluster               P239

NGC 1624                    Open Cluster               P240


Constellation: Taurus

Messier 45                  Open Cluster               M45 Pleiades

Caldwell 41                 Open Cluster               C41 Hyades

IC 1995                        Diffuse Nebula           P64

NGC 1514                    Planetary Nebula        P120

NGC 1554                    Diffuse Nebula            P200 Von Struve’s Lost Nebula

NGC 1555                    Diffuse Nebula            P201 Hind’s Variable Nebula

NGC 1647                    Open Cluster               Herschel 400 H8-8

NGC 1750                    Open Cluster               Herschel 400 H43-8

NGC 1807                    Open Cluster               P65

NGC 1817                    Open Cluster               Herschel 400 H4-7

NGC 1952                    Diffuse Nebula            M1 Crab Nebula


Constellation: Ursa Major

Messier 40                  Double Star                 M40 Winnecke 4

IC 2574                        Galaxy                        P121 Coddington’s Dwarf Galaxy

NGC 2681                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H242-1

NGC 2742                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H249-1

NGC 2768                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H250-1

NGC 2787                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H216-1

NGC 2841                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H205-1

NGC 2950                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H68-4

NGC 2976                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H285-1

NGC 2985                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H78-1

     - NGC 3027             Galaxy                              - Paired with H78-1

NGC 3031                    Galaxy                         M81 – Bode’s Galaxy

NGC 3034                    Galaxy                         M82, Herschel 400 H79-4 Cigar Galaxy

NGC 3077                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H286-1

NGC 3079                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H47-5

NGC 3184                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H168-1

NGC 3198                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H199-1

NGC 3310                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H60-4

NGC 3556                    Galaxy                         M108 Herschel 400 H46-5

NGC 3359                    Galaxy                         P202

NGC 3587                    Planetary Nebula        M97 Owl Nebula

NGC 3610                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H270-1

NGC 3613                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H271-1 Paired with H244-1

NGC 3619                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H244-1 Paired with H271-1

NGC 3631                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H226-1

NGC 3665                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H219-1

     - NGC 3658             Galaxy                              - Paired with H219-1

NGC 3675                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H194-1

NGC 3726                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H730-2

NGC 3729                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H222-1

     - NGC 3718             Galaxy                              - Paired with H222-1

NGC 3813                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H94-1

NGC 3877                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H201-1

NGC 3893                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H738-2

     - NGC 3896             Galaxy                              - Paired with H738-2

NGC 3898                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H228-1

NGC 3938                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H203-1

NGC 3941                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H173-1

NGC 3945                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H251-1

NGC 3949                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H202-1

NGC 3953                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H45-5

NGC 3982                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H62-4

NGC 3992                    Galaxy                         M109, Herschel 400 H61-4

NGC 3998                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H229-1

     - NGC 3990             Galaxy                              - Paired with H229-1

NGC 4026                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H223-1

NGC 4036                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H253-1 Paired with H252-1

NGC 4041                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H252-1 Paired with H253-1

NGC 4051                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H56-4

NGC 4085                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H224-1 Paired with H206-1

NGC 4088                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H206-1 Paired with H224-1

NGC 4102                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H225-1

NGC 4605                    Galaxy                         P252

NGC 5322                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H256-1

NGC 5457                    Galaxy                         M101 Pinwheel Galaxy

NGC 5474                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H214-1 Paired with M101

NGC 5473                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H231-1

NGC 5631                    Galaxy                         Herschel 400 H236-1



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