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The Gathering Darkness

Five planets brighten these long nights

All the naked-eye planets decorate our night skies the next couple weeks, with the two brightest coming into view at sunset but all staggered throughout the dark hours.
    The sun sets around 4:45 this week. By that time you’re likely to see Jupiter presiding over the eastern skies. Look to the opposite horizon where Venus blazes even brighter in the wake of the setting sun. Venus sets within two hours of the sun. Jupiter, on the other hand, shines through much of the night. It is at its highest around 9pm and sets in the northwest at 3am.
    By that time, Saturn crests the southeast horizon while dimmer Mars is already well ahead of the ringed planet. The moon joins Mars over the weekend, 10 degrees to the red planet’s west Friday, just below it on Saturday and a dozen degrees to the east Sunday. Don’t confuse Saturn with equally bright Spica just five few degrees to its right. While both are around zero magnitude, Saturn’s steady golden glow is a clear contrast to twinkling blue Spica.
    In the hour before sunrise, around 7:20 this week, Mercury shines low in the east-southeast thru December. The third-brightest planet, Mercury clings so tight to the horizon that it can be hard to locate. Look for it near the waning crescent moon before dawn on the 22nd.
    At 12:30am Thursday the 22nd, the sun reaches its southern-most point in its annual path across the celestial dome. Poised above the Tropic of Capricorn 231⁄2 degrees below the equator, it marks the start of winter for us in the Northern Hemisphere. The sun rises at its farthest point to the southeast and sets at its farthest extreme in the northwest, traveling its shortest and most shallow arc through the sky. Hereafter, the sun slowly inches back toward the equator, adding a little more light to each day