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Our Friendly Skies

November 19, 2008|By ROD MARTIN and ANDY SMETZE, Tristate Astronomers

Visible evening planets

Jupiter is the bright evening planet low in the southwest.

Venus is bright in the west during evening twilight.

Mercury is visible in the west after sunset late in the month.

Visible morning planets

Saturn rises around midnight and is high at sunrise.

For more information about the visible evening planets and nighttime sky, download the planetarium's podcast "Skylights" from

Solar System

The word "Planet" means "wandering star." That is obvious this month with the two brightest planets, Jupiter and Venus. December begins with a fantastic photo opportunity. On Dec. 1, Venus, Jupiter and the thin crescent moon are within two degrees, or four moon


widths, of each other. Watch the thin crescent moon catch and pass the planets from Dec. 1

through the next several days. These are the three brightest nighttime objects.  On Dec. 1, Venus passes two degrees south of Jupiter, but pulls away about a degree a day for the next couple weeks leaving Jupiter in the twilight dust.  While Venus rises higher, Jupiter sinks lower.

At magnitude -4, Venus is about six times brighter than Jupiter at -2.  If you look at them through binoculars or a small telescope, you will notice that Jupiter appears larger.  Even though Jupiter is five times farther away from us than Venus, it is many times larger in size.

Venus will pass within one and one half degrees of Neptune on Dec. 26. At magnitude +8, binoculars or small telescopes are needed to see the faint, distant planet.

Mercury may be visible late in December.  Look low in the west 30 to 60 minutes after sunset during the last half of the month.

Saturn takes over the morning stage this month.  It is not the brightest object at +1 magnitude, but it rises near midnight most of the month and before 11 p.m. late in the month.  It is high in the south as morning twilight begins.  The rings are now tilted less open than over the past year because of our viewing angles, so it will not appear as bright in the sky.

Sun and Moon

The daylight has been decreasing dramatically all fall.  We will soon be at the shortest day, the Winter Solstice.  As the Earth revolves around the Sun, we tilt toward the Sun in the summer and away in the winter.  The day of maximum tilt is the day the Sun is lowest in our sky, and the day with the least amount of daylight. The Sun reaches that point in our sky on Dec. 21 at 7:04 a.m.  After

that day, the daylight will start to increase and the Sun will climb higher in the sky.

On Dec. 1, the Sun rises at 7:13, sets at 4:47 for nine hours and 34 minutes of daylight.  On Dec. 21, the solstice, the Sun rises at 7:28, sets at 4:50 for nine hours and 22 minutes of daylight.  By Dec. 31, the Sun rises at 7:32, sets at 4:57 for nine hours and 25 minutes of daylight. The Sun enters the astronomic boundaries of Scorpius from Ophiuchus on Dec. 17.

The moon reaches first quarter on Dec. 5, full on Dec. 12, last quarter on Dec. 19, and new on Dec. 27.

Brish Planetarium

Since this is the 40th anniversary year of the planetarium, many good previous programs will be shown this year.  Except for January and February, programs will be changed monthly.

The current public program is "A Holiday Story."  The program will be presented on Dec. 2, 9, and 16 at 7 p.m.  There is no program on

Dec. 23. "A Holiday Story" examines many of our seasonal customs and winter holidays including Yule, greenery, Santa and the Christmas star.  Plan to arrive early for this popular program. Programs are held Tuesday evenings at 7 when schools are in session, unless noted otherwise.  Admission costs $3 for adults and $2 for children and students. Senior citizens with a WCPS gold card are admitted free.

The Tristate Astronomers meet monthly at the planetarium. For more information about schedules and special events for the club, go to

The planetarium is at the Central Offices of the Washington County Public Schools on Commonwealth Avenue off Frederick Street in Hagerstown.

The planetarium's Web site is and the phone number is 301-766-2898.

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