It’s a wonderful time to view the predawn sky! Look in the direction of sunrise before dawn on Sunday, December 29 for very thin waning moon in the vicinity of the ringed planet Saturn, the most distant planet you can see with your eye alone. And there will be two other planets in the predawn and dawn sky as well. The dazzling planet Jupiter will beam in the west and the red planet Mars will shine in the southern sky just before dawn (from southerly latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Mars appears in the north to northeast).
The waning crescent moon and Saturn will rise into the predawn sky at roughly 4 a.m. local time at mid-northern latitudes. At latitudes farther south, the moon and Saturn will rise earlier yet. They are visible from around the world. Look for the darkened portion of the crescent moon to glow dimly. This glow is called earthshine.
But don’t wait until tomorrow to view planets. The grand procession of planets starts out first at evening dusk and continues onward until morning dawn, and is visible in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Venus and Jupiter – the brightest and second-brightest planets, respectively – burst onto the scene first thing after sunset. But you have to catch Venus low in the southwest almost as soon as darkness falls because this world sets about 90 minutes after sunset at mid-northern latitudes (even sooner at more southerly latitudes).
Jupiter shines opposite of Venus at nightfall, but Jupiter – unlike Venus – stays out all night long. Mars then rises in the east at or around midnight (1 a.m. daylight-saving time) worldwide, but the red planet is found highest up in the sky just before dawn. Last but hardly least, the moon and the ringed planet Saturn rise in the wee hours before dawn.
However, you don’t have to stay up all night to see all four planets. Catch Venus and Jupiter at dusk and nightfall. Then wake up before dawn to view Mars and Saturn.
Conveniently, the moon acts as your guide to Saturn on December 29. By the way, the word saturnine refers to the gloomy disposition associated with lead poisoning. At one time, alchemists thought the planet Saturn possessed lead-like properties.
In contrast, the ancient Romans honored the god Saturn as a benevolent force in their winter solstice celebrations, the Saturnalia, occurring annually from December 17 to December 25. The Saturnalia was marked by gift-giving and merrymaking, with candles casting out the winter darkness and evergreen wreaths serving as a reminder of the continuance of life. It’s thought the modern day celebration of Christmas may have roots in this ancient Roman festival.
Bottom line: Let the moon guide you to the planet Saturn before dawn on Sunday, December 29. Before dawn on that day, you can see two other planets, too: Jupiter and Mars.