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Lights to Warm a Cold Night

December’s sky offers rewards for those willing to brave the elements

The sun sets this week a little before 4:45, and as the sky darkens, Jupiter appears high in the south-southeast. Aside from the moon at this time, Jupiter is one of the brightest objects in the heavens until setting due west at midnight. The planet stands out all the more amid the dim water constellations Aquarius, Capricornus, Pisces and Pisces Austrinus, which holds the nearest bright star, Fomalhaut. On Monday, look for Jupiter less than seven degrees below the first-quarter moon.

Saturn rises in the east around 2am and is high in the southeast by daybreak, around 7:15 this week. Don’t mistake the ringed planet’s steady golden glow for the twinkling blue hue of Spica, which trails 10 degrees behind Saturn.

A few hours later, Venus rises in the east. At magnitude –4.8, Venus is exponentially brighter than any other planet or star. As dawn approaches, Venus is some 30 degrees above the southeast horizon, about as high as it ever climbs. The morning star shines so bright, in fact, that it remains visible well after sunrise; see how long into morning you can spot it.

This week marks the annual Geminid meteor shower, one of the best and most reliable. So if you’re willing to bundle up and brave the frigid night, you’ll likely be rewarded with anywhere from 40 to 90 meteors an hour during the peak Sunday night thru early Monday morning.

While streaking every which way across the sky, the Geminids radiate from the bright star Castor in the constellation Gemini, which rises shortly after sunset. But the show should really pick up after midnight, when the waxing moon sets and the sky darkens. By that time Gemini is almost directly overhead, and the higher the radiant point — the point from which the meteors appear to emanate — the more meteors you’re likely to see.