The smallest and largest of the Sun’s major planets will stage a relatively rare encounter this month as they pass each other in the dawn twilight. Jupiter should be easy to see, but Mercury could take some work. The great Winter Circle climbs higher each night, and is in good view by 8 p.m. by month’s end. It consists of seven bright stars encircling orange Betelgeuse, the shoulder of Orion.
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In the Sky This Month
December 14: Moon and Mars
Mars is in great view tonight. The Red Planet looks like a bright orange star just above the Moon as night falls. It will stand farther to the right of the Moon tomorrow evening.
December 15: Auriga
Auriga is low in the east-northeast as night falls and climbs high across the sky later. It is marked by a pentagon of stars. It’s easy to pick out thanks to the brightest member of that figure, Capella, which is one of the brightest stars in the night sky.
December 16: Messier 37
Messier 37, a 500 million-year-old star cluster, climbs high overhead during the night. It’s not quite visible to the unaided eye, but it’s a fairly easy target for binoculars. It probably is about 5,000 light-years away, and contains about 500 known stars.
December 17: Saturnalia
Today is the beginning of Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival. The early Christian church may have adopted December 25 as the date for Christmas in part to counteract the appeal of Saturnalia and other festivals.
December 18: Zodiac
As twilight fades away, the zodiac arcs high across the southern sky. It is a trail of constellations with one thing in common: The Sun’s path across the sky traverses their borders, so the Sun passes through each of those constellations during the year.
December 19: Jupiter and Mercury
Jupiter and Mercury, the largest and smallest of the solar system’s major planets, are getting together in the dawn sky. For the next few days, they will be separated by less than the width of your finger held at arm’s length. Jupiter is the brighter of the two.
December 20: Moon and Aldebaran
The eye of the bull — the star Aldebaran — stares into the Moon tonight. The brightest star of Taurus is to the lower left of the Moon at nightfall. The Moon will move closer to Aldebaran during the night, to less than the width of a finger held at arm’s length.