stro-Landscape Photography Notes for December 2018

The following information is designed with the Astro-Landscape Photographer in mind. I searched the web for information about astronomical objects that were presented in a condensed form that a landscape photographer could use to plan interesting photographs. I couldn’t find any I liked, so I made this list for myself. After putting all this together, I figured I’d put it on the web for others to use so I expanded the scope to include information for a world-wide audience. So here’s my Astro-Landscape Photography Notes December 2018.

Thor’s Rainbow, Thor’s Well, Cape Pertetua, Oregon. Water splashing from Thor’s Well was illuminated with a Luxli Viola 5″ On-Camera RGB LED Light.

Please Note: All times are given in UTC, Coordinated Universal Time. Your local times may vary based on your location. If you’re unfamiliar with UTC, check out the excellent description at Even with that information, it can sometimes be confusing converting UTC times to your local time. Try for converting specific a UTC time to your local time.

December Highlights –

I’ve picked three highlights for this month –

  1. Orion Season – not only is the relatively bright constellation Orion well placed, but also the Andromeda Galaxy and the Pleiades are rising into the evening sky.
  2. Conjunction of Venus and the Moon – Venus along with a very think crescent Moon that are just over 3° apart on December 3rd.
  3. Comet Wirtanen will pass within 12 million km (7.5 million miles) from Earth on December 16th. It’s expected to be rather hard to see visually but it should be interesting in astro-landscape photos.

Articles –

  • Orion the Hunter – King of the Northern Winter Sky
  • Photography Technique – Shooting Basic Star Stacks
  • Dark Sky Locations – Warrumbungle National Park (Australia)

Milky Way Core (MWC) Best Visibility – Not Visible  

The Milky Way Core is not visible world-wide. The Core has been swallowed by the Sun’s glare in December as the Sun moves through the constellation Sagittarius, passing nearby to the MWC.

Nighttime by Latitude

The long hours of true nighttime have returned to all northern latitudes. Summer is just around the corner in the Southern Hemisphere and nighttime is slowly disappearing.  

Nighttime by Latitude

Northern Hemisphere  
65° N More than 12.5 hours each night.
60° N More than 12 hours each night at start, 12.5 hours by the end.
55° N Nearly 12 hours each night.
40° N More than 11 hours each night.
20° N More than 10 hours each night.
Southern Hemisphere Nighttime is getting shorter.
35° S More than 6 hours each night, 6 hours by the end.
50° S Less than 1 hour at the start, but no true night by months end.

Milky Way Core (MWC) Visibility

The Milky Way Core has left the night sky for the rest of this year. It’s lost in the glare of the sun and not going to be visible again until the start of February next year. The sun will pass by the Milky Way Core on about December 18th.

Milky Way Core Visibility

45 N Latitude

December 1-31 Lost in the glare of the sun and MWC never rises about the horizon at this latitude during nighttime. 

35 S Latitude

December 1-31 Lost in the glare of the sun.


December starts with a waning crescent moon, just past Last Quarter and rising well after midnight. The new moon is on the 7th, so the first half of the month will have moonless evenings. By the 11th, a thin crescent moon appears in the evening sky. At month’s end, the moon is about 22 days old and is at last quarter.                

Lunar Phases

12/07 07:20 UTC  New Moon  
12/15 11:49 UTC First Quarter Waxing Gibbous
12/22 17:49 UTC Full Moon  
12/29 09:34 UTC Third/Last Quarter Waning Gibbous


Lunar Trivia – American-Centric Traditional Moon Names for December

Farmer’s Almanac:  

Supposedly from “Native Americans” of the NE and Eastern USA

Cold Moon or Long Nights Moon – December is fully in the grips of the dark nights of winter, and these names fully reflect it. The Moon’s path is higher in the night sky, and it lingers in the sky longer than any other month.
Actual Native American Names The Famer’s Almanac presents a rather simplistic view of American Indian names. There is no way I can condense these traditions into a little box on this page, so I encourage you to look at Indian Moons, Days & Other Calendar Stuff by Phil Konstantin.
Anglo-Saxon Ærra Geola  – The month “before Yule,” after which Æftera Geola would come round again.


December Solstice 12/21 22:23 UTC – Longest night of the year for the Northern Hemisphere. Of course, this is also the shortest night of the year for the Southern Hemisphere.


Highlights of the Month

Morning Sky – Three Planets in a Row. After months of having bright planets in the evening sky, there will be three bright planets adorning the morning sky by mid-December. Jupiter and Mercury leave the glare of the sun and enter the morning sky, joining Venus which has been there since last month. However, Mercury soon returns into the glare of the rising Sun. But Jupiter will continue its long climb into the sky.
Venus and Moon Conjunction Venus and the Moon will be in conjunction on December 3rd, 18:43 UTC. They will be only 3° 37′ apart. The great news about this conjunction is the Moon will only be a couple days before new, the catch is they will be low on the horizon in the sun’s glare.
Mercury and Jupiter Conjunction Mercury will be in conjunction with Jupiter on 21th, when they will be less than 1 degree apart. The conjunction will be closest at 14:41UTC.

Planetary Roundup

Mercury Mercury will reach its highest point in the morning sky on December 15 and then it begins moving back into the Sun’s glare. As always, it’s close to the horizon. This month it will be close to Jupiter as well.  

In the Northern Hemisphere, look for them very low on the western horizon about 30 minutes before sunrise.

In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s higher in the sky than in the north. It will be about 10° above the horizon about 30 minutes before sunrise.

Mercury will be higher in the sky than Jupiter before the 21st, when they will be in conjunction at 14:41UTC. They will be less than a degree apart!

If you’ve never noticed Mercury before, this month is a great time to find it. Use Jupiter to guide you to Mercury’s location.

Venus Again, Venus is the “Star” of this month’s planets – the “Morning Star”, that is. It is many times brighter than any other astronomical object, other than the Sun and Moon.  It will be prominent in the morning sky all month, not changing brightness or altitude much during this month.  

Venus and the Moon will be in conjunction on December 3rd, 18:43 UTC. They will be only 3° 37′ apart. The great news about this conjunction is the Moon will only be a couple days before new, the catch is they will be low on the horizon in the sun’s glare. In the southern hemisphere, the Moon will be lower in the sky than Venus. Northern hemisphere viewers will see the Moon above Venus. They will be best viewed at their closest from East Asia and Australia/New Zealand.

Perhaps a better conjunction will be on January 1st, 2019 at 21:49 UTC. The Moon will be a day younger, so they will be higher in the morning sky. The best part is the separation will be a close 1° 16′. That’s only two and a half lunar diameters apart! This should look great with either a wide angle or a telephoto lens!

A side note: It’s still possible to see Venus in the daytime sky, if one knows where to look. At the beginning of December, try following Venus as sunrise approaches. Once the sun is up, use an object like a building to block the sun and its glare. If you’ve been following Venus, it’s quite like you’ll be able to see it even though it’s daytime!

Mars Mars starts the month well above the southern horizon during blue hour for mid-northern latitudes. It still shines brighter than most stars and is a bit east of the Milky Way Core. At latitude 35° S, Mars is very high in the NW sky at the start of evening. It sets about the same time each day this month.  

Like last month, Mars will lose nearly half of its brightness. Look for its distinctive red color. Hurry and catch it before it gets too dim to stand out.

Telescope – Mars and Neptune will have a very close conjunction on December 7th around 15:00 UTC. They will a very close 2’ apart! For viewers in the western hemisphere, the separation will not be as close, but still 20’ apart. They should look on early on the evening of December 6th.

Jupiter Jupiter passed behind the Sun on November 26th is on its way towards the morning sky for December. It climbs further out of the dawn’s glare as the month continues. It is bright, but not as bright as the much higher Venus.  

Mercury will be in conjunction with Jupiter on 21th, when they will be less than 1 degree apart. The conjunction will be closest at 14:41UTC.

Saturn Saturn continues to move along with the Milky Way Core this month. For mid-northern latitudes, it sets shortly after dusk at the start of December. For Southern Hemisphere viewers, Saturn appears higher in the sky than in the north, but it still sets about 2 hours after sunset. But regardless of hemisphere, it is soon to be lost in the sun’s glare as the month continues.   
Uranus Well up before sunset and reaching its highest point in the night sky around 9PM.
Neptune At the start of December, Neptune has already risen by sunset. It is a little to the east of Mars and thus sets shortly after Mars.  

Telescope – Mars and Neptune will have a very close conjunction on December 7th around 15:00 UTC. They will a very close 2’ apart! For viewers in the western hemisphere, the separation will not be as close, but still 20’ apart. They should look on early on the evening of December 6th.

After the conjunction, Neptune is west of Mars for the rest of the month.



Really, if you don’t think Pluto is a planet, check out the photos from the New Horizons space probe. There are dunes of windblown methane ice crystals on it!  

It’s located about halfway between Saturn and Mars. If you look in this area for a second or two, you’ll certainly have a few photons that travelled from Pluto hit your retina! But it’s only Magnitude 14 so you’ll need a big scope to see it as an actual point in the sky. And it’s about to be lost in the glare of the sun next month.


Note – The times given and are for the closest approach. As the moon moves relatively quick across the sky, visibility of the closet approach depends highly on your location.

Date – UTC




Moon Age Moon Phase


Rating, 5=Best, 0=Worst

2018-12-03 18:43

Moon + Venus 3° 37′ 26 days Nearly New Low on the Horizon  

4 out of 5

2018-12-05 21:07

Moon + Mercury 1° 52′ 28 days Nearly New

In the Sun’s Glare.

0 out of 5

2018-12-09 05:19

Moon + Saturn 1° 07’ 2 days Nearly New

In the Sun’s Glare.

1 out of 5

2018-12-14 23:23

Moon + Mars 3° 33′  


7 days First Quarter

Mars is dim compared to the Moon,

2 out of 5

2018-12-21 14:41

Jupiter + Mercury 0° 51′ 14 days Nearly Full

A close pairing, but low on the horizon.

4 out of 5

2019-01-01 21:49 Moon + Venus 1° 16′ 25 days Waning Crescent

Venus High and Bright

5 out of 5

Meteor Showers

Geminids  – Peak December 14th  

Northern Taurids – Peak November 10th 

Showers this Month

The Geminid and Northern Taurid showers are active this month. As always, the Geminids are expected to be good.

Geminids – Peak December 14th

December brings the Geminid meteor shower, which is usually the strongest shower of the year. The Geminids are active from December 4th to December 16th, with the peak expected to occur on the nights of December 13 and 14. They have a high Zenith Hourly Rate of 120 and are often bright and intensely colored. They are also distinctive in that they have good activity before midnight. Look towards the constellation Gemini, near Orion, for the radiant. Get out and catch them if you can!


Best Seen From: Either hemisphere

Maximum Hourly Rate = 120

Meteor Velocity = Swift – 22 miles/sec, 35 km/sec

Associated Comet = 3200 Phaethon – an asteroid!

Northern Taurids – Peak November 10th 

The Northern Taurids are very similar to the Southern Taurids. They are active from October 19th to December 10th. The radiant is from the constellation Taurus, from just a little bit north of where the Southern Taurids radiate.


Best Seen From: Either hemisphere

Maximum Hourly Rate = 5

Meteor Velocity = Medium, 18 miles/sec (30km/sec)

Associated Comet = 2P/Encke

Aurora Outlook

For up to the minute aurora forecasts, check out the information at For an animated forecast maps for both northern and southern hemisphere, try

NOAA publishes a 27-day Outlook of Geomagnetic Indices While these are only predictions, they are based on the They are updated on every Monday at 1500 UTC and list the highest daily K values.

As of the time of writing (December 1st), it is predicting no events at Kp 6 or higher up to December 22. Several days with Kp 4 or 5 activity are predicted for December 1st – 2nd, but then it’s expected to be Kp 2 or 3 for the rest of the month.  

The End of a Cycle

As we approach the end of Solar Cycle 24, the outlook for solar activity that causes the aurora is expected to increase in the next several years. Despite the current Solar Cycle being very low in activity, aurora activity has been occasionally spectacular. Look for auroras to increase in the next few years. There was even a Kp5 (auroras are measured on a scale of 0 to 9) at the end of August, so even though we’re in a period of very low overall activity, there can still be occasionally high activity.

Northern Hemisphere Good – night skies are dark enough for great viewing.
Southern Hemisphere Viewing outlook poor.

 Noctilucent Clouds

“Night clouds” are a tenuous, cloud-like phenomena in the upper atmosphere. They are made of ice crystals and are only visible in a deep twilight. Noctilucent clouds are typically visible at higher latitudes in each hemisphere but can occasionally be seen at lower latitudes when the sun is well below the horizon.    

Northern Hemisphere from 50° to 70° Not likely to be visible.
Southern Hemisphere from 50° to 70° Opportunities are increasing as the sun’s path moves south. Look in the direction of where the sun is as it moves below the southern horizon.

 ISS and Satellites

Go to and sign up for flyover alerts. Usually show up about 12 hours before the flyover. They tell the time, compass directions, angular elevation, and length of time of the flyover. Check for your location as the time of the flyover greatly affects the visibility of the ISS.

ISS Flyovers

Northern Hemisphere It’s still a good time of year to see ISS flyovers even though the sun is moving further south.
Southern Hemisphere Opportunities to see longer flyovers are increasing as the summer months are approaching.


ISS Transits of the Sun or Moon

There is a possibility that the ISS will pass directly between any location on Earth and the Moon or the Sun. These transits are highly dependent on where the observer is located. And higher latitudes decrease the chances of these transits. The best way to find if a transit will happen nearby, go to

Since the ISS is moving at about 17,000 mph (27,000 km/hr.), transits happen quickly! Lasting from about 5 seconds to less than one second. Since these transits happen so quickly, you need to plan! Instead of trying to see the transit and then triggering your shutter by hand, have your camera set up and then either shoot HD or 4K video or have the camera shoot at its fastest frame rate. You’ll get more frames shooting video, especially if you have a camera that can shoot at 120 fps.

Use Safe Filters

For Solar Transits, make sure you use a solar filter that meets ISO 12312-2:2015 Requirements. The same filter that you got for the Great American Solar Eclipse last year will work well. Don’t trust your camera to a standard photographic ND filter as they will most likely not filter out Infrared light. You will risk frying your camera sensor by not having the proper filter.  


Comet 46P/Wirtanen Comet Wirtanen will pass within 12 million km (7.5 million miles) from Earth on December 16th. It is expected to brighten to about 3rd magnitude. The only issue is this comet will have a diffuse coma and there will be a nearly full moon competing with it.  

This is the best comet to come around for a while, and it should record well using typical astro-landscape photographic techniques that one would use for Milky Way photography. It is expect to be somewhat larger than 1° in apparent diameter, that’s larger than the Moon!

You’ll need a location that has low light pollution. Even then, it will be hard if not impossible to see visually since the coma will be so diffuse and have such a large angular size. Also, remember that humans have a blind spot so look just a little to the side of where the comet is predicted and use averted vision to see it. Binoculars can help seeing it visually. It’s not expected to have a long tail.

The comet will head northwards a little to the east of Orion, being between the red star Aldebaran and the Pleiades around the night of the 16th.  It will continue towards the bright yellow-white star Capella around the 25th of December. Follow this link as Sky & Telescope to see the path of Comet Wirtanen.

To get away from the light of the Moon, shoot a little earlier in the month than the 16th, like on the 12th around 9PM when the Moon has set. Even on the 16th, the Moon will have set by midnight, leaving Wirtanen still high in the sky. By the 25th, you’ll have just a few minutes between the end of twilight and Moonrise. Wirtanen will be still be high in the NW sky by New Year’s when the Moon will rise after 2 am. By then it will be too high in the sky for many southern hemisphere observers.

A Note on Comet Brightness Predictions –

Comets can be totally awesome! But they are notorious for not getting as bright as predicted! There is no better way to break your astronomy heart than to have high expectations that any particular comet is going match the predicted magnitude. Add on to that, the there are several ways predictions are made. One system is based on the light from the comet being reduced to a point source, so all the light from the coma is integrated into a point. But since comets are often up to a degree in diameter, this makes them appear dimmer than a star of the “same” magnitude.

The other issue is comets sometimes break apart as they approach the sun and actually get brighter than predicted. If only every comet did this! More often though, it seems that comets just don’t release as much dust and gas as expected as they near the sun.

When I was a kid, Comet Kohoutek passed the Earth at the end of 1973. The last time it circled the Sun was about 150,000 years ago so there was no previous data for it. It was spotted past the orbit of Saturn on its way in, if I remember right, and was being dubbed the “Comet of the Century”. Comet Kohoutek completely failed to live up to its moniker. It did OK, but it did not live up to the hype.  

Constellation Talk

Orion the Hunter – King of the Winter Sky

An article on photographing the Andromeda Galaxy  from here can be found on


Photography Technique – Shooting Basic Star Stacks

Now that we’ve learned about Orion and found it in our skies, we can photograph it. We’ll use some basic stacking techniques. Wait until Orion is overhead while the moon is not up, about midnight in December. We’ll need a camera, a wide lens that’s f/2.8 or faster, a tripod and an intervalometer. That’s it! If your camera has a built in intervalometer, that’s great too, use that.  

Find your Target

Head out and locate Orion. Aim your camera with the three stars of his belt centered in the lens. Set your ISO to 3200. Focus and then leave your lens wide open. Take a photograph and check for star trailing. You want to not have any trailing. With a 24mm lens on full frame, or a 16mm on a crop sensor, it’s probably going to be about 5 to 8 seconds. Set your intervalometer to take shots one after another at the shutter speed that you just determined that will not give you any trailing.

Shoot ’till the Cows Come Home

Now sit back and shoot as many frames as you can. Well, several dozen would be a great place to start. You’ll need to check the camera framing every few minutes and re-center your camera at Orion’s belt. You don’t have to worry about getting it reframed exactly like the first set, just in the general area of the frame’s center. We’ll use stacking software to align all the frames later. If it’s cold outside while shooting the frames, when you head back inside, put your camera in a plastic bag. Seal it to keep moisture from condensing on your camera and lens.

Time to Stack

Once you get your photos loaded into your computer, load them up in some star stacking software. Check out Starry Landscape Stacker for the Mac and Sequator or Deep Sky Stacker for PCs. I don’t have space or time to go through the steps of how to use these programs, so check out YouTube for the software you pick. There’s lots of great tutorials out there for them. Don’t worry about shooting “dark, light, flat, dark flat, or bias” frames. We’re just trying to get out and see what you can do with this technique. You can learn about them at a later time if this technique is of interest to you.

But the bottom line is that you can shot some frames that you can stack and shoot great images of the night sky. Even without a costly and burdensome tracker.  

Dark Sky Locations – Warrumbungle National Park (Australia)

Warrumbungle National Park in New South Wales (NSW) is this month’s Dark Sky Location. It was designated Australia’s first IDA International Dark Sky Park in 2016, recognized for its part in protecting Australian astronomical research. It is Australia’s only Dark Sky Park.

Warrumbungle National Park

Located in west-central New South Wales, it is northwest of Sydney in the Warrumbungle Mountain Range. The Australian government recognized the quality of the night sky there years ago, siting a new astronomic research center there in the 1950s. This center, the Research School of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the Australian National University, Siding Spring Observatory, is home to the largest telescope on the continent, the 4-meter Anglo-Australian Telescope.

Warrumbungle National Park is a great place for star gazing, amateur astronomy, and getting out into nature. The park contains the most spectacular part of the Warrumbungle mountain. Volcanic activity about 15 million years ago formed this range, which has eroded to form several spires and craggy outcrops. The outcrops are in a roughly circular shape with several rock towers. The most iconic feature in the park, The Breadknife volcanic dyke, rises 90m above the surrounding plain. Woodland forest and bush covered hills surrounds the range. The park is inside the Pilliga Important Bird Area which preserves an important range for woodland bird species.

Visit the Astronomic Observatory

Of interest to the astro-landscape photographers, is the Siding Spring Observatory. There is a visitor center with information about astronomy and the telescopes. Guided tours of the observatory as well as talks by astronomers and scientist are available. An annual StarFest is held over the Australian October long weekend. Note that the observatory is a working research center and they are not open at night for public viewing. It is closed to the general public after 4 pm.

Not only is there a research observatory there, most of the Warrumbungle National Park is a Class 1 Excellent Dark Sky (Black) or Class 2 Typical Truly Dark (Dark Grey) location on the Bortle Scale. This makes for excellent star gazing locations.

Warrumbungle Conditions

Warrumbungle has temperatures that range from 15°C to 30°C in the summer to 0°C to 15°C in the winter. The wettest month is January and the driest is September.

A bush fire in 2013 that destroyed about 80% of the park. Although some parts of the park are still closed, much of it is now open.

Lodging is available in the park. There are 4 main campsites. Several huts are available.  Picnic areas are available as well. An $8AU fee is charged per vehicle per day.

International Dark Sky Association

Dark Sky locations help greatly with photographing the Milky Way. To help readers of this blog, I’m listing a dark sky location each month that readers might be interested in visiting. For more information, I’d like to recommend visiting the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) website at The IDA maintains a list of some of the world’s best dark sky locations. They are also dedicated to educating people about light pollution and how to reduce it.

Links to Last Month’s Content:

Astro-Landscape Photography Notes for November 2018

Moonset and Milky Way, Haystack Rock – Cannon Beach, Oregon


If you find any info that needs clarification or correction for my Astro-Landscape Photography Notes December 2018, please email me at




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