Sky Watch

December Nights Graced By Planets' Sparkling Light

By Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, December 5, 2005; Page B06

As if in a grammar school holiday pageant, the nearby planets dance across the cosmic stage and joyously celebrate December's long nights.

When the sun sets early in the evening, you will find Venus in the south-southwest sky for a little more than an hour. Effervescent Venus appears to glow at negative fourth magnitude, very bright and quite visible from the middle of Washington. You can't miss this planet, but it is easily mistaken for a distant airliner with its landing lights on.

By the middle of the month, Venus will have moved toward the southwestern sky at dusk. It can be found in the west at dusk by New Year's Day.

Mars , once the talk of the solar neighborhood, is still bright, but it fades as the month continues. You'll find the red planet high in the eastern sky as night begins, and it will climb higher in the middle of the month. However, while it ascends, it moves away from Earth -- making it dim.

Hanging out in the constellation Cancer, Saturn begins rising in the east-northeast about 9 p.m., and it reaches due south about 4 a.m. The ringed planet will be very high and can be seen at zero magnitude (bright).

Jupiter , the king of the planets, now rises before 5 a.m. in the east-southeast and is a negative first magnitude (bright) object. Because the sun does not rise until about 7 a.m., it's a perfect time to spy Jupiter's reign over the morning sky. Find the large, gaseous planet snuggled between the constellations Virgo and Libra. By the end of the month, the planet gives us more of a show as it rises 1 1/2 hours earlier.

If you're living in a high-rise apartment and have a clear view of the south, you'll probably see Mercury (zero magnitude, bright) hanging out above the horizon in the pre-dawn sky throughout December. The best time to look is just before sunrise.

And if you're yearning for more daylight, you are a solstice away from happiness. The winter solstice is Dec. 21 at 1:35 p.m., according to the U.S. Naval Observatory. That moment officially starts winter in the Northern Hemisphere. (Put another shrimp on the barbie, as this solstice starts summer in the Southern Hemisphere.)

For us Northerners, that's the day we have more night and less light than at any other time of the year. This means that soon after, we'll be noticing more sunlight creeping into our day.

By mid- to late January, the longer daylight hours will be noticeable, and we'll keep getting more light until late June.

Down-to-Earth Events

Dec. 5: Astronomer Stacy McGaugh discusses cosmic research at the University of Maryland Observatory astronomy open house, College Park. See the cosmos afterward, weather permitting. 8 p.m. Information: 301-405-6555; http://www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse .

Dec. 10: John Wood of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center will discuss "Fifteen Years With the Hubble Telescope" at the regular meeting of the National Capital Astronomers, at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. 7:30 p.m. Information, http://capitalastronomers.org .

Dec. 20: Astronomer Lucy McFadden explains results from the Deep Impact comet mission at the University of Maryland Observatory astronomy open house in College Park. Afterward, see the sky from a telescope, weather permitting. 8 p.m. Information: 301-405-6555; http://www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse .

Dec. 21: With the least light and longest night, it's the dreariest day of the year. It also means that more sunlight soon will be on its way. The presentation "The Day of the Sun's Return: The Winter Solstice" at the Montgomery College Planetarium, Takoma Park. Parking is available in the faculty lot. 7 p.m. Information: 301-650-1463; http://www.montgomerycollege.edu/departments/planet .

Ongoing You can unravel the mysteries of space and time through the extraordinary mind of Albert Einstein. "Entertaining Einstein" is an original show now playing at Davis Planetarium, Maryland Science Center, Inner Harbor, Baltimore. For entrance fees and showtimes, visit http://www.mdsci.org .

Blaine Friedlander can be reached at bfriedlander@earthlink.com.