Orion the Hunter is one of the most prominent constellations in all the heavens. You can’t fail to spot Orion’s Belt – three medium-bright stars in a short, straight row – if you look eastward in the evening. Many constellations have one bright star, but Orion has two: Rigel and Betelgeuse. Rigel represents the Hunter’s left foot, and Betelgeuse his right shoulder.
It seems paradoxical. At middle latitudes in the U.S. – and throughout the Northern Hemisphere – the earliest sunsets of the year come about two weeks before the solstice and the shortest day of the year. They’re happening around now for middle latitudes of the United States, and around the world.
Venus reaches its greatest illuminated extent in the evening sky on December 6, 2013. That means the planet’s daytime side is covering more square area of sky than at any other time during Venus’ present apparition as the “evening star.” And it means that Venus is brighter now than at any other time during this evening apparition.
Behold the young moon in close vicinity to the brilliant planet Venus in the western twilight some 30 minutes (or sooner) after sunset. These two worlds burst onto the scene before nightfall because the moon and Venus rank as the brightest and second-brightest luminaries of nighttime, respectively. Be sure to catch the dazzling twosome at dusk or nightfall, for they’ll follow the sun beneath the horizon by early evening.
How and when to see Aries in the night sky, plus info about this constellation in the history of astronomy and in mythology.
Hamal – also known as Alpha Arietis – shines as the brightest star in the constellation Aries the Ram. This star and two others – Sheratan and Mesarthim – make up the Head of the Ram. Aries is small. But the compact pattern of these three stars makes Aries relatively easy to find. It’s fun to spot Hamal and its brother stars in the night sky. And this star also has a profound significance in the history of astronomy.
We now turn toward the northern sky – and its famous constellation Cassiopeia the Queen. This constellation appears high in the northeast at nightfall as seen from latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere now (it cannot be seen easily, or at all, from Earth’s Southern Hemisphere). At this time of year, Cassiopeia swings directly over Polaris, the North Star, at around 8 p.m. local clock time.
Cassiopeia – sometimes called The Lady of the Chair – is famous for having the shape of a telltale W or M. You will find this configuration of stars as a starlit M whenever she reigns highest in the sky, hovering over Polaris.
From a dark country sky, you’ll see that Cassiopeia sits atop the luminous band of stars known as the Milky Way. Arching from horizon to horizon, this soft-glowing boulevard of stars represents an edgewise view into the flat disk of our own Milky Way galaxy. When Cassiopeia climbs above Polaris, the North Star, on these dark winter evenings, note that this hazy belt of stars that we call the Milky Way extends through the Northern Cross in the western sky and past Orion the Hunter in your eastern sky.
You can find one of winter’s most famous constellations – Orion the Hunter – plus see the Milky Way tonight. Orion is bright and can be seen from inside smaller cities. For the Milky Way, you will need a dark sky! In early December, the constellation Orion rises over the eastern horizon around 7 to 8 p.m. By late December – or early winter – Orion is seen at nightfall or early evening. Because Orion is out for about 12 hours a night in December and January, we tend to associate Orion with the winter season.
Only one planet is easily visible at dusk and nightfall throughout December 2013: Venus. It is shining at its brightest now; you can’t miss it. Venus! It’s the beautiful evening star. Plus if you have an unobstructed horizon, you should be able to see Venus and Jupiter shining pretty much opposite of each other at early evening, starting around the second week of December. They are the sky’s two brightest planets, and they’ll be like bright bookends, briefly, enclosing the evening sky.