Hey, sky fans. Happy Friday! Thanks for stopping by. I hope you’ve enjoyed your week. Here we are at the start of December, another year almost done. I’m starting to think that time is moving faster than one second per second. I hope everyone’s enjoying their holiday season so far. No matter what or how you celebrate, it always seems to go by too fast. The good news is, I suppose, it’ll be December again before we know it.
These late fall and early winter skies are some of the best there are. From about mid-December through until about mid-January, before it starts to be really noticeable that the days are getting longer again, the nights are long and dark. The Moon does some of its best work all year, and the stars can do no wrong. If the clouds stay away, which is a big, big “if,” it’s really a great time to look up.
This weekend, the Moon is back from the overnight shift. It was new on Tuesday the 29th. Since then, it’s been pulling back into the evening’s skies, and the eons-long cycle goes on. For the next couple of days, it’ll be absolutely spectacular, as it teams up with Venus and Mars giving us a chance to see our three closest neighbors all in one corner of the sky.
There’s something special about seeing the early-crescent phases setting just after the Sun, sliding off into the deepening oranges and pinks. It’s great any time of year. These days, it happens in what was the middle of the afternoon just a few months ago, and just a few months from now, for that matter, when the name of the game is seeing who can eat the most hot dogs and who can do the most cannonballs in a row, possibly while eating a hot dog. The light at December’s dusk is a bit softer and more diffuse, smoother and less angry than July’s.
So, it goes like this. Head out tonight after sunset, and look to the western skies. Depending on where you are and when you’re reading this, it’s only a couple hours away. You’ll need to hunt around a little, but if everything cooperates, you could be able to see a very thin eyelash of a crescent Moon rising just a bit to the north, to the right of, the flamboyantly bright planet Venus. If you haven’t had your eye on Venus for the last few weeks, you’re in for a shock. It’s grown so bright over the last few weeks that it’s really hard not to stare (do you have any idea how many times I had to type “stare?”) and wonder if something dangerous is about to happen. This is a chance for you to use a planet to find the Moon, rather than vice versa. These very early crescents, in the 10%-lit neighborhood, can be a little tricky to find.
Up and to Venus’s left, further southward, you’ll see the a-bit-more-than-faint orange glow of Mars. Mars, unlike Venus, has been getting dimmer lately, and might be a bit tough to find see at first. It’s about 20 degrees away from Venus, so about the width of both of your fists held together at arms’ length.
The Moon’s crescent will grow as it races along this Venus-Mars line Saturday and Sunday evenings. For my sky-watching dime, either is just fine. The Moon will be thinner and closer to Venus on Saturday, then thicker and closer to Mars on Sunday. On Monday, the three will be in a friendly diagonal line with Mars between the other two.
Mercury will be kicking around, too, down and to the right along that Mars-Venus line. It’s hard to see even in the best of circumstances. I think these days it might be too low too early, but you never know.
Watching over the whole thing from 17 light years off, up and to the right is the bright star Altair in the constellation Aquila, the 12th brightest star in the sky.
It’s always great to be able to see time pass this way, and watch the Moon and planets look like they’re interacting with each other. Things change from one month to the next just enough to notice, just a little. I hope you’ll give it a shot this time around.
Have a great weekend, and clear skies, everyone!