The month of December in 2014 has a lot going on for followers of space exploration and sky watchers. First, this month is a bit historic in that there are no less than six different countries ALL launching rockets! These would be all six of the countries in the world which have space launch capabilities. The countries include the USA, Russia, Japan, China, Europe (France, from French Guiana), and India. You can see a full listing of what's coming up here. Of these, thefirst was the successful launch of the Japanese Hayabusa 2 asteroid sample return mission, which lifted off on December 3rd. It is winging its way toward an asteroid romantically named 162173 1999 JU3. It will arrive in July 2018, spend a year and a half in orbit, then return to Earth in 2020 with a sample of the asteroid. On December 4th there are two launches scheduled, by the USA and Europe (France). Unfortunately, the USA/NASA launch of the Orion space capsule had to be aborted, but a follow-up attempt will be performed on December 5th. The European launch is sending up a couple satellites to orbit Earth.
Further launches will be happening on December 7th (China), 11th (USA), 12th (Russia), with several more Russian, and US launches scheduled for later in the month, as well as a launch from India.
In regards to more terrestrial-bound, skywatch matters, if you are motivated to get out in the cold (assuming it is cold where you are), you can have an opportunity to catch a glimpse of all five of the naked-eye visible planets this month! Mars is currently hanging low in the southwest after sunset, and will be there for most of the month, setting around or so. At the end of the month, Venus and Mercury will be low to the southwest as well. On New Year's Eve they will only a couple of finger widths apart (3.5 degrees) in the sky. Days after that Mercury will disappear once again. But for the next few months into 2015 Venus will climb higher and higher into the evening sky, providing you with a bright, shiny jewel to watch on those winter evening drives home. As for Saturn and Jupiter, Saturn now rises about an hour or so before the Sun (which means you have to be up in the pre-dawn hours to see it). Jupiter, however, is kind of dominating the night sky right now, rising around at the beginning of the month, and by the end of the month. It'll be that bright starlike object to the East, and will continue to dominate the night sky through January. Short of the Moon and Venus, it’ll be the only other brightest thing in the sky.
Capping off the month of sky observing opportunities, the Geminid Meteor Shower peaks in just about a week! The Geminids is considered by many to be the best of the meteor showers (yes, even surpassing the vaunted Perseids), producing up to 120 multicolored meteors per hour at its peak. The meteors are debris left behind by an asteroid known as 3200 Phaethon, which was discovered back in 1982. The shower runs annually from December 7-17, although it apparently has already started dropping rocks in our atmosphere, as there have been reports of bright meteors and a few fireballs earlier this week from the shower. So it's starting early. The shower will peak on the night of the 13th and morning of the 14th (woo! over a weekend! not the middle of the week!). The not quite 3rd quarter moon will drown out some of the meteors, but the Geminids are overall so bright and numerous that it should still be a good show. Best viewing will be from a dark location after midnight. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Gemini,but can appear anywhere in the sky.
If you plan on going out to observe this shower, dress for the weather!! And assume the temperatures will be a good 10-20 degrees COLDER than the forecasted low, and dress accordingly (gloves, hat, parka, thermals, etc). You'll be happier. :-) (having a mug of hot chocolate is helpful, too). For those who haven't seen it yet, here is one sequence from some astro-lapses I shot during the 2012 Geminids, covering a period of 2-1/2 hours, and therein are no fewer than 30 meteors that fell in the camera’s field of view (and while I was shooting this, meteors were falling all over the sky outside the camera field of view) : https://vimeo.com/55675094
Rather than list them all here, if you want to get more info on the Geminids, be brave and google "geminid meteor shower 2014" and you'll be treated to a host of pages. :-)
Good luck, and clear skies!
You can follow Mark 'Indy' Kochte on his facebook pageIndyVison Photography.