This month, lots of merry and bright

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - BY BLAINE P. FRIEDLANDER JR. Blaine Friedlander may be reached at [email protected]­hoo.com.

De­cem­ber’s sky of­fers a goody bag full of fun: bright plan­ets, shoot­ing stars, a new season, more light — and per­haps a comet tossed in.

Venus starts De­cem­ber on a daz­zling note at -4.9 mag­ni­tude. Through­out De­cem­ber, find the planet in the south­east be­fore sun­rise. You can’t miss it: It looks like a jet­liner with its land­ing lights on.

On Dec. 3, en­joy the bril­liant Venus be­neath the sliver of a wan­ing cres­cent moon, and on the fol­low­ing night, the thin­ner wisp of the cres­cent moon will be to the lower left of Venus.

By mid-month, the morn­ing heav­ens of­fer the large gaseous Jupiter sur­fac­ing from a brief au­tum­nal hia­tus. Catch Jupiter later this week in the east-south­east peek­ing over the morn­ing hori­zon to grab cof­fee with the fleet Mer­cury be­fore sun­rise. Jupiter, with a -1.7 mag­ni­tude (bright), gets higher in the morn­ing sky, while Mer­cury is -0.4 mag­ni­tude (bright enough to find), ac­cord­ing to U.S. Naval Ob­ser­va­tory data.

Make sure you have a clear view of the east-south­east hori­zon, as Jupiter and Mer­cury dance a cos­mic tango and nudge closer, so that by Dec. 21, the two plan­ets ap­pear less than a de­gree apart.

Evening plan­e­tary ac­tion starts in the western sky at dusk, when the ringed Saturn hangs low in the south­west af­ter dark. The young, new cres­cent moon is found be­low Saturn on Dec. 8, but leapfrogs the ringed planet the next night.

Our red neigh­bor Mars saun­ters in the south at night­fall early in De­cem­ber. It’s a zero-mag­ni­tude ob­ject, bright enough to see, and chills in the con­stel­la­tion Aquar­ius­now. The nearly firstquar­ter moon ap­pears to pass un­der­neath the planet Dec. 14.

Comet Wir­ta­nen (46P), a pe­ri­odic comet pass­ing through our neck of the so­lar sys­tem in mid-De­cem­ber, may ap­proach naked-eye vis­i­bil­ity for ur­ban ar­eas — but see­ing it through binoc­u­lars may be a good choice. The Univer­sity of Mary­land has a web­site for up­dated de­tail: wir­ta­nen.as­tro.umd.edu. The comet in the mid­dle of the month may be found in the Taurus con­stel­la­tion, in the east­ern sky in the early evening, and then in the western sky around 2 a.m., near the Pleiades (Messier 45), ac­cord­ing to as­tronomer Ge­off Ch­ester of the Naval Ob­ser­va­tory.

Zip­ping through the heav­ens, the Gem­i­nid me­te­ors peak on the night of Dec. 13-14, at about 120 per hour, ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can Me­teor So­ci­ety (amsme­te­ors.org). Nor­mally comets can be tapped as the cause for shoot­ing stars, but as­ter­oid 3200 Phaethon prompted this show. (Jour­ney­ing through the so­lar sys­tem, the comets leave dust be­hind when they round the sun. The Earth smacks into a comet’s dusty path and it lights up our at­mos­phere, giv­ing us a me­teor show.)

A few nights be­fore Christ­mas, catch the sparse Ur­sid me­teor shower, which peaks at 10 per hour Dec. 22-23, ac­cord­ing to the so­ci­ety. The par­ent comet (8P/Tut­tle) of th­ese shoot­ing stars was dis­cov­ered by Ho­race Tut­tle in 1858 at Har­vard Col­lege Ob­ser­va­tory in Cam­bridge, Mass. — years be­fore he was a Naval Ob­ser­va­tory as­tronomer.

Dark days will soon be be­hind us, as the win­ter sol­stice ar­rives Dec. 21 at 5:23 p.m., ac­cord­ing to the Naval Ob­ser­va­tory. Wash­ing­ton will have nine hours and 26 min­utes of light that day — the least amount all year. On Jan. 1, we’ll see nine hours, 30 min­utes. The good news for the next six months is that we’ll slowly gain more light. Down-to-Earth events:

Dec. 3 — Un­wrap the gift of the night sky at “Stars Tonight” at the David M. Brown Plan­e­tar­ium, 1426 N. Quincy St., Ar­ling­ton, ad­ja­cent to Wash­ing­ton-Lee High School. 7:30 p.m. $3. friend­soft­he­p­lan­e­tar­ium.org.

Dec. 5 — Stu­dent as­tron­omy re­search pre­sen­ta­tions at the Univer­sity of Mary­land’s Ob­ser­va­tory open house, Col­lege Park. Fol­low­ing the pre­sen­ta­tions, tour the heav­ens through tele­scopes, weather per­mit­ting. 8 p.m. as­tro.umd.edu/open­house.

Dec. 8 — “New As­tron­omy with Grav­i­ta­tional Waves,” a talk by Univer­sity of Mary­land physi­cist Peter Shawhan at the Na­tional Cap­i­tal Astronomers’ reg­u­lar meet­ing. The meet­ing is held at the Univer­sity of Mary­land Ob­ser­va­tory, Col­lege Park. 7:30 p.m. cap­i­ta­las­tronomers.org.

Dec. 20 — “Cos­mic Dust Near and Far,” a talk by re­search as­tronomer Lud­milla Kolokolova at the Univer­sity of Mary­land’s Ob­ser­va­tory, Col­lege Park. En­joy the heav­enly views of the night sky through tele­scopes, weather per­mit­ting. 8 p.m. as­tro.umd.edu/open­house.

Dec. 21 — Ac­com­pany the new win­ter season at 5:23 p.m. with “The Day of the Sun’s Re­turn: The Win­ter Sol­stice,” a pro­gram at the Mont­gomery Col­lege Plan­e­tar­ium, Takoma Park. 5 p.m. goo.gl/q9i­wrS.

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