By Peter Becker
It's a wonderful time of year. Yes, Christmas is coming! For those who enjoy the night sky, we are also thrilled because of the splendor of the coming winter evening sky. Couple this with a trio of planets rising in the light of dawn.
There is no constellation brighter than Orion. The centerpiece of the winter evening sky, Orion stands out with two brilliant stars- red Betelegeuse and blue-white Rigel- and the remarkable "belt" of three 2nd magnitude stars in the middle.
On December evenings, watch as Orion rises in the east. As seen from mid-northern latitudes, the belt stars rise almost vertically. The whole figure of Orion, the mythical hunter, is that of a grand uneven rectangle with the belt in the center. Betelgeuse is at top left and Rigel at bottom right. Seeming to hang from the belt stars is the "Sword of Orion," a line of stars with a patch of glow in the middle.
Be sure to inspect this area with binoculars. Orion is already packed with bright stars; binoculars bring out hundreds more faint stars filling the areas between. The hazy patch, which is referred to as the Great Nebula of Orion or M42, stands out much more clearly.
As seen in the east. above Orion this season you can't miss the brilliant planet Jupiter, brighter than any star in the night sky. Near Jupiter is the bright red-orange star Aldebaran which appears connected to a a group of stars outlining the letter "V" lying on its side. This is the Hyades Star Cluster. Above that, see the bright and compact Pleiades Star Cluster.
About an hour before sunrise, it's well worth getting up in time to look out at the sky. The pre-dawn December sky, facing southeast, reveals a preview of springtime. Stars and constellations marking the view you will see in the evening four months from now are seen, including bright orange Arcturus and the bright blue-white star Spica.
This month, you will also find the very bright planet Venus low in the southeast. To the upper right of Venus is planet Saturn; to the lower left is planet Mercury. Binoculars will aid your view especially if the light of dawn has progressed enough to make it hard to see even the bright stars.
The crescent Moon passes by these planets this week. On Sunday Dec. 9, the Moon is high in the southeast, near Spica. On Monday Dec. 10, the crescent, which is now thinner, appears below Saturn. On Dec. 11, the Moon is under Venus. be sure to notice the "earth shine," the reflected lighted from the Earth, which faintly illuminates the rest of the moon inside the bright sunlit crescent.
New Moon is on Dec. 13.
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Keep looking up!