These free, printable Sky Maps (star charts) by astrononer Jeff DeTray will help find your way around the night sky!
Each month, Jeff's Sky Maps highlight a wonderful event in the evening sky—including beautiful stars, constellations, planets, conjuntions with the Moon, meteor showers, and other amazing celestial objects.
Sky Map December 2014
By Jeff DeTray, Almanac astronomer writer
Visit Jeff's site at AstronomyBoy.com
This month's highlights: “Watery” constellations plus a magnificent meteor shower!
Just click, print, and bring outside!
December offers a chance to view some lesser-known sights in the southern sky, many of them associated with water or the sea. Plus, at midmonth, there is a terrific meteor shower to enjoy!
Looking high in the south in mid-December, find the Great Square that forms the body of Pegasus, the Winged Horse. Pegasus is upside down from the point of view of Northern Hemisphere observers, with his neck and head arcing down and to the right from the Great Square. The horse’s head culminates in the star Enif, derived from the Arabic word for “nose.” To the right of the nose are two tiny constellations, Equuleus, the Little Horse, and Delphinus, the Dolphin, the first of many water-related constellations in this part of the sky.
Below the Great Square, look for the small, pentagonal Circlet asterism, part of the much larger constellation Pisces, the Fishes. An asterism is any easily recognized pattern of stars within a larger constellation. The main part of Pisces is a large, V-shape pattern, stretching left from the Circlet and then angling upward to the left of the Great Square. None of the stars of Pisces is very bright, but once you find the Big V, Pisces is obvious.
The “V” of Pisces points right at the heart of Cetus, the Sea Monster or Whale (take your pick). The head of this creature to the left resembles a larger version of the Circlet. The only bright star in Cetus is Deneb Kaitos, in the tail of the beast. Indeed, Deneb Kaitos translates from the Arabic as “southern tail of Cetus.”
To the lower left of Cetus you’ll find part of Eridanus, the River. Eridanus winds its way through a large portion of the southern sky, eventually disappearing below the horizon.
Sky map produced using Chris Marriott's Skymap Pro
Continuing our very wet theme is Aquarius, the Water Carrier. It is an ancient constellation, recorded as such at least as far back as the astronomer Ptolemy, who compiled a list of 48 constellations in the 2nd century. In one version of its mythology, Aquarius is a god holding a jar or urn from which flows all of the water in this part of the heavens. The names of three stars in Aquarius—Sadachbia, Sadalmelik, and Sadalsuud—all come from Arabic words having to do with “luck,” so when you gaze upon Aquarius on a beautiful December night, it might be a good time to “thank your lucky stars!”
Our last two watery constellations lie below Aquarius. They are Capricornus, the Sea-Goat, and Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish. Capricornus has been recognized as a constellation for 4,000 years or more, making it one of the oldest constellations of all. It is usually depicted as having the head of a goat and the tail of a fish. Piscis Austrinus is another ancient constellation; according to one mythology, it is the ancestor of Pisces, the Fishes, discussed above. The bright star Fomalhaut (“mouth of the fish”) is the only bright star in the whole watery region of the sky.
On December 13 and 14, the Geminid meteor shower will occur. The Geminids are one of the best and most reliable meteor showers of the year. You can expect to see a shooting star per minute from a good, dark location. The meteors may appear in any part of the sky. So bundle up if it’s cold, recline or lie on a sleeping bag, and look toward the darkest and most wide open part of the sky that you can see.
The peak time for viewing the Geminids is from darkness on December 13 to dawn on December 14. The Moon rises before midnight, and its brightness will begin to interfere with viewing the meteor shower as the night progresses. The Geminids themselves tend to be fairly bright, so the Moon won’t have a major impact until 1 to 2 hours after it rises. Note that while the Geminids officially peak on December 13–14, you’ll still be able to see some meteors for a few nights both before and after the peak.
See our Sky Watch page for more highlights of the monthly sky, courtesy of The Old Farmer's Almanac.