December in Space
Meteor from the Geminid Meteor shower. Credit: Dean Rowe

December in Space

26/11/2020Written by Alex Thompson

Thirty rocket launches, 5 space anniversaries, 2 meteor showers and a great conjunction in the night sky.

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Long March 5 Y2 was transporting from assembly building to 101 launch site in Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Center

The festive season is set to be a busy one, with more than 30 launches potentially expected across the world this month.

SpaceX have 7 launches, including the launch of three sets of Starlink satellites and an International Space Station resupply mission, however, the most exciting launch will arguably be taking place on the other side of the planet.

Following the successful launch of the Chang’e 5 mission to the Moon last month, China is launching the GECAM (Gravitational Wave High-energy Electromagnetic All-sky Monitor) aboard a Long March 11 rocket on 09 December.

GECAM is a gamma and x-ray space observatory that will consist of two identical satellites placed in low-Earth orbit on opposite sides of the planet.

The main objective of GECAM is to better our understanding of gravitational waves and their effect on the Universe.

Space History

Space History
Tim Peake spacewalk. Credit: NASA

Incredibly, on 15 December it will be five whole years since Tim Peake became the UK’s first ESA astronaut with his launch to the International Space Station.

Another important anniversary will be marked on 08 December when SpaceX will celebrate ten years since the first launch of Dragon, making them the first private company to launch a spacecraft, orbit the Earth and return it safely.

On 21 December 1968, Apollo 8 successfully launched astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders on the first crewed orbit of the lunar surface. The mission included a live Christmas Eve TV broadcast from lunar orbit (the most watched TV broadcast in history at the time) and the capture of the historic ‘earthrise’ picture by Bill Anders.

Four years later, on 14 December 1972, Eugene Cernan took the final footsteps on the Moon as he and Harrison Schmitt blasted off the surface on Apollo 17, ending crewed lunar exploration to this day, something that will hopefully change in the not too distant future.

It would be remiss of us not to wish British scientist Sir Isaac Newton a happy 378th birthday on Christmas Day, born in 1642.

What's in the Night Sky?

What's in the Night Sky?

There are two meteor showers to spot this month.

The evening of 13 December will see the peak of the Geminids Meteor Shower, called by some as the ‘King of the Showers.’ Producing up to 120 multicoloured meteors an hour, this is the one major shower that shows good activity before midnight as well as after it.

A New Moon will ensure dark skies this year, with the following evening potentially nearly as active as well, making it one show this Christmas you won’t want to miss.

If you miss the Geminids there isn’t long to wait for another meteor shower, with the Ursids peaking on 21 December. Whilst only producing 5-10 meteors per hour, viewing them should be possible due to the First Quarter Moon.

For the best chance to spot them, head to a dark location after midnight and look towards the constellation of Ursa Minor (the baby bear).

And, if you head out just after sunset that same evening, 21 December, you may also get to see the rare conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.

Known as a ‘great conjunction’, this will be the first such conjunction since the year 2000 and the planets will look so close together they will appear to make a bright double planet in the sky.

Look to the west for this rare and impressive planetary pair.

Christmas Films

Christmas Films
Image Credit: Lucasfilm

When you can’t handle any more Christmas films, there are a lot of space movies to watch that are celebrating anniversaries this month.

We’re dubbing the week of 14-20 December ‘Star Wars Week’, with the sequel trilogy and Rogue One all released within these seven days between 2015 and 2019: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015), Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017), Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019) and Rogue One (2016). Now we love Star Wars at the National Space Centre so we’ll probably be watching all the movies back-to-back but if it’s not for you then here are some more Sci-Fi films to watch.

09 December 1982 saw the UK premiere of the iconic E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, the heart-warming story of young Elliott helping his new alien friend ‘phone home.’ Did you have your picture taken with E.T. at the National Space Centre?

One aimed at a slightly older audience is Passengers (21 December 2016). Starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, two people are awakened ninety years too early from an induced hibernation on a spaceship. You could watch it on its anniversary between spotting the great conjunction and the Ursids meteor shower!

And you can round it all off on Boxing Day with the brilliant Muppets in Space (26 December 1999)… because surely you’ve seen Muppets Christmas Carol enough times now right? Right?

*Runs for cover*