Every year at this time, around mid-evening, you can look for the exceptionally brilliant and huge Winter Circle to fill up the eastern portion of sky. This year, the brightest stars of winter appear less brilliant, due to the fact that there’s an even brighter planet joining them. The planet Jupiter makes up part of the Winter Circle in 2013. Jupiter and/or the Winter Circle can be seen on moonlit nights – or even from some cities beset by light pollution.
Jupiter is the second-brightest star-like object in the evening sky, after the planet Venus. At early evening, Venus is setting in the west-southwest as Jupiter is rising opposite of Venus over the east-northeast horizon. Once Jupiter is up, it’s out for the rest of the night. The king planet Jupiter shines close to Castor and Pollux, the brightest stars in the constellation Gemini the Twins. You’ll find Jupiter and these Twin stars shining highest in the sky tonight at approximately 1 to 2 p.m. local time, in the midst of the many bright Winter Circle stars.
The Winter Circle, by the way, isn’t a constellation. It’s what’s called an asterism: a noticeable pattern on the sky’s dome. In this case, the pattern is made of the brightest stars of winter, in many different constellations.
From a dark sky, you’ll see the Milky Way’s hazy band of stars passing right through the Winter Circle. Look for the Milky Way – in the darkest sky you can find – after the moon leaves the evening sky in the final week of December 2013.
The southernmost and brightest star of the Winter Circle is Sirius. As seen from middle and far northern latitudes, it will be the last to rise tonight. Look for dazzling Sirius to sparkle wildly over the southeast horizon around 8 to 9 p.m. local time.
Bottom line: Watch the blazing planet Jupiter and the Winter Circle stars march westward throughout the night. The Winter Circle will swing high into the southern sky by around midnight, and into the western sky before dawn. Jupiter and the stars of the Winter Circle stars will set low in the west before dawn colors the sky. Cloudy tonight? Watch for the Winter Circle stars and planet Jupiter in the evening sky for months to come!