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December 2011 guide to the five visible planets
Evening planets in December 2011: Venus and Jupiter
Venus and Jupiter – the sky’s two most brilliant planets – pop out first thing at evening dusk. Given clear skies, you simply can’t miss these dazzling worlds. Shining much more brilliantly than any star, Venus and Jupiter rank as the third-brightest and fourth-brightest celestial bodies to light up the heavens, respectively, after the sun and moon.
Venus blazes like a lighthouse in the southwest sky at dusk and early evening. But be sure to catch Venus soon after the sun goes down. At mid-northern latitudes, this world follows the sun beneath the horizon less than two hours after sundown in early December. By the end of the month, Venus stays out for over two and one-half hours after sunset. In January 2012, watch for Venus to climb up higher into the evening sky and to stay out longer after dark.
Use the moon to verify that you’ve found Venus in late December, as the thin lunar crescent pairs up with Venus on the evenings of December 26 and 27.
Jupiter shines from nightfall until the wee hours of the morning all though December. Because Venus – the sky’s brightest planet – sets in the southwest at early evening, that leaves Jupiter to lord over the late night sky all through December. Watch for Jupiter to move westward and upward throughout the early evening hours. Jupiter transits – that is, reaches its high point in the sky – at roughly 9 p.m. in early December and 7 p.m. by the month’s end.
After soaring to its highest point for the night, Jupiter then descends into the western half of the sky. Look for Jupiter to set in the west earlier each morning as December approaches January. Jupiter sets in the west around 4 a.m. in early December, and 2 a.m. by the end of the month. As Jupiter sets in the west, look for Saturn to rise in the east.