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Christmas Lights

Feast your eyes on the heavens above

Of the naked-eye planets, Mercury is the most overlooked. That isn’t for lack of brightness, as it outshines both Mars and Saturn. Nor is it a result of distance, given that it’s closer to us than is Mars. But so near the sun, Mercury never strays far from its blinding glare.
    Early Friday morning, however, the innermost planet reaches its farthest point from the sun, called elongation. This is also Mercury’s longest stretch of visibility: It rises in the southeast at 5:40am and climbs 16 degrees above the horizon by the time the sun rises at 7:23. This same morning, scan the horizon for the last wisp of the waning crescent moon just a few degrees below Mercury.
    While not as bright as Mercury, Mars and Saturn shine high overhead during its brief appearance. Mars, having risen around 11pm, is high in the south at dawn. Saturn rises around 2am and is high in the southeast at dawn.
    At the other end of day and night, Venus and Jupiter dazzle from opposite ends of the heavens. The evening star materializes high in the southeast at dusk. By sunset at 4:50, it’s 20 degrees above the horizon and visible for another two hours before setting.
    Sunset reveals Jupiter well above the southeast horizon, and by the time Venus sets, it is high in the south. Nestled between the faint stars of Pisces and Aries, Jupiter stands out like royalty. But his is not the brightest light in the heavens.
    That honor goes to the Christmas Star, Sirius. The brightest star, Sirius and its constellation Canis Major mark the southeast edge of the winter Milky Way, which stretches across the sky and to the northwest horizon. You need truly dark skies to see the Milky Way, but toward that end Christmas gives us the new moon to better enjoy the view of our stars and planets.