Sky Watch

Venus Brightens the Holidays

By Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, December 1, 2003; Page B08

All the visible planets are ablaze for this holiday season, but none casts light on a dark, wintry evening like Venus.

The brilliant planet can be found low on the southwest horizon after dusk, appearing to beam at -3.9 magnitude (very bright). As December progresses, so does Venus. It climbs a little higher and effervesces through the early evening a little longer. By the winter solstice -- Dec. 22 at 3:04 a.m., according to the U.S. Naval Observatory -- Venus sets in the western sky more than two hours after sunset.

Wise men and women can stand outside on Dec. 24 to catch Venus in the western twilight; if you have a good view of the horizon, you can catch the thin crescent of a new moon below the brightly burning planet.

Mercury, the planet closest to the sun, makes a cameo appearance early in December, skimming along the southwestern horizon at dusk. After the sun sets, this fast-moving planet does not stay visible for long, but for those people with a clear view of the horizon, you can see Mercury and Venus dance a planetary waltz for about the next week.

Mars, sporting its signature rusty red tint, is found high in the south in the evening hours, and sticks around the area half the night. Sky-gazers should have no problem finding it now in the south-southeastern sky as night begins and sets in the west just before midnight. Generally Mars maintains that viewing schedule through the month.

With its brilliant rings beautifully tilted toward Earth at about 25 degrees, Saturn provides a fantastic frolic in the prime-time evening hours. This giant gaseous ball rises in the eastern sky earlier and earlier as the month progresses. Saturn ascends the east-northeastern sky in the 7 p.m. hour, but for practical purposes can be seen better after 8. In the 10 p.m. hour, it is high in the east and becomes due south around 2 a.m.

Watching Saturn only gets better. This planet, found in the constellation Gemini, is at zero magnitude (bright) throughout the month.

On New Year's Eve, Saturn officially reaches opposition. This means that from Earth's perspective, the ringed planet is opposite the sun. In other words, we will have a "full Saturn," and on that evening it rises in the east just as the sun sets in the west.

Another gaseous giant, Jupiter, can be seen easily on the morning side of night. It now rises after midnight in the east and by the end of the December, Jupiter ascends in 10 p.m. hour. It starts the month as a negative first magnitude object (bright) and becomes a negative second magnitude object (very bright) at month's end.

Down-to-Earth Events

Dec. 2 -- Zoltan Levay of the Space Telescope Science Institute presents "Behind Hubble's Pictures: Creating Art From Science" at the institute's auditorium on the Johns Hopkins University campus in Baltimore, 8 p.m. Information, 410-338-4700; hubblesite.org/about_us/open-night.shtml.

Dec. 4 -- Are we alone? David Grinspoon of the University of Colorado examines the question "Extraterrestrial Life: How Real? Where Is It?" in a lecture hosted by the Smithsonian Resident Associates. S. Dillon Ripley Center lecture hall, 1100 Jefferson Dr. SW. Members $12; general admission $15; senior members $11. 202-357-3030; www.ResidentAssociates.org.

Dec. 5 -- Astronomer Tony Farnham discusses "Stardust" at the University of Maryland observatory on Metzerott Road, College Park. 8 p.m. 301-405-6555; www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.

Dec. 6 -- Astronomer Kim Weaver of the Goddard Space Flight Center explains starbursts and galactic nuclei at the National Capital Astronomers meeting at the Montgomery County Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Center, 4805 Edgemoor Lane. 3 p.m. www.capitalastronomers.org.

Dec. 10 -- Frank Winter, curator, discusses "The First U.S. Rocket-Assisted Takeoff" at the National Air and Space Museum. Meet at the museum seal, noon. 202-357-2700.

Dec. 14 -- See a live demonstration of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club's Roboscope at the club's regular meeting. Enterprise Hall Room 80, George Mason University, Fairfax. 7 p.m. (Parking in Lot B.) www.novac.com.

Dec 20 -- Astronomer Elizabeth Warner provides a sky-gazing preview in her talk "Observing in 2004," at the University of Maryland observatory on Metzerott Road, College Park. 8 p.m. 301-405-6555; www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.

Dec. 22 -- "The Day of the Sun's Return: The Winter Solstice." At the Montgomery College Planetarium, Takoma Park. Parking available in the faculty lot. 7 p.m. 301-650-1463; www.montgomerycollege.edu/departments/planet.

Dec. 27 -- Take a heavenly tour of fictional Middle Earth in a lecture by astronomer Sean O'Brien, "Celestial Sights in the World of J.R.R. Tolkien," at the Einstein Planetarium, National Air and Space Museum. 5:30 p.m. 202-357-2700; www.nasm.si.edu.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company