by William J. Bechaver
EARTH — December usually stands out as an excellent month for astronomical viewing. Not only are the cold, crisp nights ideal, with their reputation for crystal clear skies, but the spectacular Geminid Meteors occur each December, providinge spectacular views.
However, this year, the peak night for these alien visitors, unfortunately falls on the night of the full moon, so the brightness of the sky will interfere with our views on the traditionally best night.
Luckily, the term on the meteor shower is such that this year, some of the early arrivals can be seen right now. So, go out this week in the early morning hours, and look to the north. You could see a meteor a minute during some more spectacular bursts. Get out there soon, though, because the later you wait in the week, the more will the moonlight interfere.
Right now, the moon is setting just after midnight. But by this time next week, it will remain in the sky all night long, during peak hours, until the sun rises.
Dread not! There are two other meteor showers to be observed before the end of the year, and though they usually take a back seat to the mighty Geminids, this year, they may provide our better opportunity to see spectacular meteors.
While the morning sky is ablaze with early meteors, the evening sky provides a unique look at the inner planets, as they are stretched across the sky after sunset in a relatively systematic manner.
Just after sunset, look to the south-west. Mercury is easily visible, but would be a little difficult to locate, if it weren’t for the little guy’s big, and bright, sister.
First, find Venus. It’s the the brilliant point high in the west after sunset. From her, draw a line down to the point on the horizon where the sun recently set. There, in the evening glow, you should be able to easily pick out fainter Mercury. It will be the first point emerging from the glow, about midway between Venus and the horizon, before any of the faint stars in the area are visible.
Then, continue the line upward from Mercury through Venus, and much higher in the sky, they will point you to fainter, but distinctively red, Mars. These are the other three inner planets, aligned in order from the sun, and generally equidistant from each other.
Mercury will set just before six, more than an hour after the sun is gone, so the sky should be dark to watch the tiny planets descent. Venus will set just before eight, and Mars will be gone by the time ten o’clock rolls around.
So, get out shortly after sunset and witness the inner planets, equally spaced, and in order, as they parade through the evening sky.
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