December skies are rich with delights

A time lapse photo of the Geminids. Danielle Moser, NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office

A time lapse photo of the Geminids. Danielle Moser, NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office


December doesn’t disappoint when it comes to nighttime sky gazing, and this week and next bring stellar opportunities to see some celestial magic.

NASA reports that Comet Leonard (C/2021 A1) will reach its closest proximity to Earth on Dec. 12. The comet was discovered by astronomer Gregory J. Leonard in January 2021 and is so named for him.

It’s predicted that the best chance to see Comet Leonard with the unaided eye falls between Dec. 12-14. Keep in mind that this “close” pass near Earth is still about 22 million miles away, so it would help to have binoculars or a telescope when trying to spot it.

In the pre-dawn hours, look toward the eastern horizon between the handle of the Big Dipper and Arcturus, which is the brightest star in the Bootes constellation. From Dec. 14-25, try looking west/southwest in the hour after sunset. The comet will look like a fuzzy, glowing ball with a trailing tail.

This is the only opportunity we have to see Comet Leonard. Once it makes its way around the sun in early January, it will eject from our solar system and never return.

The Geminid meteor shower is active through Dec. 17 and is expected to peak around Dec. 14. Illumination from the waxing gibbous moon may make spotting shooting stars a challenge, but visibility will improve during the early, pre-dawn hours after the moon sets.

Meteors will appear to radiate from the constellation Gemini but may be visible anywhere across the sky. Look eastward to find the twin “heads” of Gemini, the stars Castor and Pollux. It’s easiest for me to first locate Orion’s Belt and shift my gaze to the left; Castor appears above and slightly left of Pollux.

Check out more December skywatching tips from NASA at

An ode to falling stars

Rainer Maria Rilke was born in Prague on Dec. 4, 1875. His education included enrollments in military, business, and law schools, none of which aligned with Rilke’s talent and inclination toward the written word. He instead chose a life of literary pursuits, and his first volume of poetry was published in 1894.

Although he’s most famous for his poetry, Rilke also wrote a novel, and his correspondence with Franz Xaver Kappus is chronicled in the book, “Letters to a Young Poet.” His writing is often described as sensitive, lyrical, dramatic, and mystical. He traveled extensively throughout his adult life and spent significant amounts of time in Russia and Paris. Rilke eventually settled in Switzerland, where he died of leukemia on December 29, 1926.

Edward Snow is an author and Mary Gibbs Jones Professor for the Humanities in the Department of English at Rice University in Houston, TX. He has translated eight volumes of Rilke’s poetry from German to English and received a number of awards for his efforts, including: The Harold Morton Landon Award in 1984-85 for “New Poems,” a second Harold Morton Landon Award in 2001 for “The Duino Elegies,” and a 1998 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in recognition of Snow’s body of work.

More than one hundred of Rilke’s lesser-known works are compiled in Snow’s book, “Uncollected Poems,” a bilingual collection that won the PEN America Literary Award for translation in 1997.

This untitled piece from “Uncollected Poems” is one of my favorites. It’s a wonderful example of Rilke’s nuanced style and elegantly captures the joy and awe of gazing up toward a sky full of shooting stars.

Do you still remember: falling stars, how

they leapt slantwise through the sky

like horses over suddenly held-out hurdles

of our wishes —had we so many?—

for stars, innumerable, leapt everywhere;

almost every look upward was wedded

to the swift hazard of their play,

and the heart felt itself a single thing

beneath that vast disintegration of their brilliance—

and was whole, as though it would survive them!

This poem is in the public domain, and the translation is reprinted with permission from Edward Snow.

Translation copyright © 1996 by Edward Snow.

Amy Roby can be reached at


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