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| Astronomy Essentials | Space on Dec 17, 2014

December 2014 guide to the five visible planets

In December, 2014, Venus out briefly after sunset; Mars up in early evening; Jupiter shines from mid-to-late-evening to dawn; Saturn in the southeast predawn; Mercury lost in the sun’s glare.

Let the waxing crescent moon guide you to Mars and Venus on December 22, December 23 and December 24. The green line depicts the ecliptic - sun's annual path in front of the constellations of the Zodiac.

Let the waxing crescent moon guide you to Mars and Venus on December 22, December 23 and December 24. The green line depicts the ecliptic – sun’s annual path in front of the constellations of the Zodiac.

Evening planets in December 2014

Brilliant Venus near December sunset.

Mars in sunset direction from dusk until mid-evening.

Elusive Mercury too near sunset to see until around New Year’s.

Bright Jupiter rises in east mid-to-late evening.

Morning planets in December 2014

Jupiter from mid-evening until dawn all month.

Saturn visible in December’s eastern predawn sky.

View larger. | Venus as captured on December 2, 2014 by Karoline Mrazek and Erwin Matys of Project Nightflight in Spain.

View larger. | Venus over the Atlantic Ocean via Austria’s Project Nightflight. Karoline Mrazek and Erwin Matys said they were on an imaging excursion on the Spanish Canary Islands when they captured this shot on December 2, 2014. Used with permission. Watch for Venus low in the sunset sky!

Brilliant Venus near December sunset. Venus, the brightest of all planets, sits close to the glare of sunset in December 2014. A fainter world would not show up in such bright twilight, but Venus is very bright! Some, like Karoline Mrazek and Erwin Matys of Austria, have already captured its photo.

In early December, Venus sets about 30 minutes after sunset at mid-northern latitudes. Its visibility improves throughout December, and it’s setting about 75 minutes after the sun by the month’s end.

Be sure to watch the skies on December 22, December 23 and December 24, when the waxing crescent moon will be back in the evening sky, moving up past first Venus and then Mars in the western twilight. Find an unobstructed horizon in the direction of sunset, and bring along binoculars, if you have them, to enhance the view.

Let the slender waxing crescent moon guide you to Mars and Venus on December 22, December 23 and December 24. The green line depicts the ecliptic - Earth's orbital plane projected onto the dome of sky.

Faint Mars and brilliant Venus are near the sunset throughout December. Let the waxing crescent moon guide you to Mars and Venus on December 22, December 23 and December 24. The green line depicts the ecliptic – sun’s path.

Mars visible in sunset direction from dusk until mid-evening. Mars reliably pops into view as soon as darkness falls throughout December 2014. It is rather low in the southwestern twilight sky now. Catch the red planet at nightfall because this world sets by mid-evening, or around 8 p.m. throughout December at mid-northern latitudes.

Although the red planet Mars is getting dimmer as it lags behind us in its larger and slower orbit, Mars nonetheless remains moderately bright throughout December, 2014. This ruddy world still shines as brilliantly as as 1st-magnitude star. Mars starts the month in the constellation Sagittarius, but enters the constellation Capricornus in early December 2014, and remains there until the end of the year.

Let the waxing crescent moon guide you to Mars (and Venus!) on December 23, December 24 and December 25.

At mid-northern latitudes, Mars sets about 3 hours after the sun all month long.

The planet Mercury will be tough to spot throughout December, but begin looking for it late in the month.  This chart shows the western twilight sky on January 1, 2015.  By then, if your sky is clear and horizon is unobstructed, you should be able to spot Mercury and Venus together, in the sunset direction, shortly after the sun goes down.

This chart shows the western twilight sky on January 1, 2015. Around then, if your sky is clear and horizon is unobstructed, you should be able to spot Mercury and Venus together, in the sunset direction, shortly after the sun goes down. Begin looking for Mercury late in the month, near the sunset.

Elusive Mercury too near sunset to see until around New Year’s. Mercury is the solar system’s innermost planet and always stays near the sun in our sky. It starts December in the sun’s glare, in the morning sky, and transitions into the evening sky on December 8, 2014.

Mercury might – or might not – become visible to you in your evening sky by late December 2014, when it sets about 50 minutes after the sun. To see it, you’ll need a clear sky and an unobstructed horizon. It’ll be lots of fun to see then, though, near Venus shortly after sunset. Your binoculars will help you scan for Mercury in the bright evening twilight. Have fun looking! And when you find it … what a special treat.

Both Mercury and Venus will be easier to view in January 2015 evening sky.

The waning gibbous moon shines close to Jupiter on the sky's dome on December 10, December 11 and December 12.

Jupiter rises in mid-evening in December. The waning gibbous moon shines close to Jupiter on the sky’s dome on December 10, December 11 and December 12.

Bright Jupiter from mid-evening until dawn all month. Jupiter – the second-brightest planet after Venus – rises before midnight (roughly 10 p.m. early December; 8 p.m. by the month’s end).

After it rises, it’s unmistakeable, shining as the sky’s brightest starlike object throughout the night until dawn breaks.

Be sure to watch for Jupiter during this year’s Geminid meteor shower. The waning gibbous moon will be up after midnight on those nights, drowning all but the brightest Geminids in its glare, but passing close to Jupiter as the Geminids pick up steam on December 10, December 11 and December 12.

If you have binoculars or a telescope, be sure to check out Jupiter’s four major moons, which look like pinpricks of light on or near the same plane. They are often called the Galilean moons to honor Galileo, who discovered these great Jovian moons in 1610. In their order from Jupiter, these moons are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

Click here for a Jupiter’s moons almanac, courtesy of Sky & Telescope.

See the waning crescent moon pairing up with the planet Saturn before sunrise on Friday, December 19.

See the waning crescent moon pairing up with the planet Saturn before sunrise on Friday, December 19.

Saturn visible in December’s eastern predawn sky. After having been lost in the sun’s glare in November 2014, Saturn reappears in the morning sky in December, 2014. At mid-northern latitudes, Saturn rises about an hour before sunrise in early December, two hours before the sun in mid-December and three hours before sunup by the month’s end. Watch for the waning crescent moon to couple up with Saturn for a few mornings, centered on December 19.

Binoculars don’t reveal Saturn’s gorgeous rings. For that, you need a small telescope. Early December will probably present your first opportunity to view Saturn in the morning sky, and the planet might become a decent telescopic object by late December, assuming you’re an early riser.

Saturn’s rings are inclined at about 24o from edge-on in December 2014, exhibiting their northern face. Several years from now, in October 2017, the rings will open most widely, displaying a maximum inclination of 27o. As with so much in space (and on Earth), the appearance of Saturn’s rings from Earth is cyclical. In the year 2025, the rings will appear edge-on as seen from Earth. After that, we’ll begin to see the south side of Saturn’s rings, to increase to a maximum inclination of 27o by May 2032.

Special sky events coming up in December 2014:

Northern Hemisphere’s Long Night Moon, starting at sunset December 5

Moon in Gemini, radiant of Geminid meteors, on December 8

Jupiter at turning point of the year on December 9

Moon and Jupiter rise at mid-to-late evening on December 10

Moon and Jupiter again, starting at mid-evening December 11

Start watching for Geminid meteors on Friday, December 12

Moon, Spica and Saturn on mornings of December 16 and 17

Distances of the planets from the sun

What do we mean by visible planet? By visible planet, we mean any solar system planet that is easily visible without an optical aid and that has been watched by our ancestors since time immemorial. In their outward order from the sun, the five visible planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These planets are visible in our sky because their disks reflect sunlight, and these relatively nearby worlds tend to shine with a steadier light than the distant, twinkling stars. They tend to be bright! You can spot them, and come to know them as faithful friends, if you try.

Bottom line: In December 2014 Venus comes out briefly after sunset; Mars lights up the early evening hours; Jupiter is out from mid-to-late-evening till dawn; and Saturn is found low in the southeast in the predawn/dawn sky. This month, Mercury is lost in the sun’s glare.

View larger.| See the little white dot of the planet Venus in the upper right of this photo?  It'll be back to your evening sky in early December.  Helio de Carvalho Vital captured this image on November 18, 2014 from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  He wrote,

View larger.| Venus near the setting sun on November 18, 2014 by Helio de Carvalho Vital in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He wrote, “I managed to capture Venus as it is starting its return to dusk, despite the fact that it is still at a mere 6.2° distance from the sun. The photos show it a few minutes before setting behind the northern side of the 1,021-meter high Tijuca Peak, located some 6.5 km away. It was deeply immersed in the intense glare of the sun, that would set some 13 minutes later.”

Lunar eclipse on the night of October 8, 2014.  The object to the left is the planet Uranus!  This beautiful photo is by Janey Wing Kenyon of Story, Wyoming.

Lunar eclipse on the night of October 8, 2014. The object to the left is the planet Uranus! This beautiful photo is by Janey Wing Kenyon of Story, Wyoming.

Debra Fryar in Calobreves, Texas captured this photo of the moon and Jupiter on May 31, 2014.  Jupiter was close to the twilight then.  In early July, Jupiter will be even closer to the twilight, about to disappear in the sun's glare.

Debra Fryar in Calobreves, Texas captured this photo of the moon and Jupiter on May 31, 2014. Jupiter was close to the twilight then.

Jupiter and its four major moons as seen through a 10

With only a modest backyard telescope, you can easily see Jupiter’s four largest moons. Here they are through a 10″ (25 cm) Meade LX200 telescope. Image credit: Jan Sandberg

Jupiter was rivaling the streetlights on December 29, 2013, when Mohamed Laaifat Photographies captured this photo in Normandy, France.

Jupiter was rivaling the streetlights, when Mohamed Laaifat Photographies captured this photo in Normandy, France. Visit his page on Facebook.

Venus on Dec. 26 by Danny Crocker-Jensen

Venus by Danny Crocker-Jensen

These are called star trails. It’s a long-exposure photo, which shows you how Earth is turning under the stars. The brightest object here is Jupiter, which is the second-brightest planet, after Venus. This awesome photo by EarthSky Facebook friend Mohamed Laaifat in Normandy, France. Thank you, Mohamed.

View larger. | Mercury, Venus and Jupiter seen when evening fell in Hong Kong earlier today - June 1, 2013 - by EarthSky Facebook friend Matthew Chin.  Awesome shot, Matthew!

View larger. | Mercury, Venus and Jupiter seen when evening fell in Hong Kong on June 1, 2013. Photo by EarthSky Facebook friend Matthew Chin. Awesome shot, Matthew!

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