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THE NIGHT SKY OVER SAUK COUNTY COLUMN: Venus at its brightest
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THE NIGHT SKY OVER SAUK PRAIRIE

THE NIGHT SKY OVER SAUK COUNTY COLUMN: Venus at its brightest

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KELLY KIZER WHITT

Columnist

Venus shines at its brightest for 2021, in early December. The closest planet to Earth, wreathed in reflective clouds, Venus currently shows a crescent shape if you view it through binoculars. Venus is unmistakable in the southwest after sunset.

If you follow a diagonal line up from the horizon away from Venus, you’ll find two more planets. Saturn and Jupiter are in Capricornus, and the three planets are mostly evenly spaced out through the beginning of December.

On Dec. 6, a slender crescent moon lies just below Venus. By Dec. 7, the moon is a bit fatter and closer to the planet Saturn. Then on Dec. 8 and 9, it passes close to Jupiter. A year ago, Jupiter and Venus had their incredibly close conjunction when the two nearly seemed to appear as one point of light. Now they are stretched apart but still in the same constellation.

As December continues, Venus will edge just a bit closer to Saturn. You’ll have a chance to spot Mercury before the end of the year in the night sky. You might see Mercury below Venus in twilight on Christmas. If not, keep an eye out to the left of Venus as Mercury steadily climbs out of twilight’s glow. Mercury will be a tiny bit higher but still to the left of Venus on New Year’s Eve.

Moon, meteors and more

Two annual meteor showers occur in December, with the best happening overnight Dec. 13 to 14. The Geminid meteor shower produces up to 120 meteors an hour at peak under dark-sky conditions. Gemini rises in the east around 6 p.m. Moonlight may interfere with your ability to see the fainter meteors.

The second meteor shower, the Ursids, occurs around the solstice. The winter solstice is at 9:59 a.m. Dec. 21. The full moon occurs a few days before, on Dec. 18, just before midnight. This Cold Moon will be waning by the peak of the Ursids a few nights later, but it will still be big and bright enough to impact your ability to see all but the best Ursids.

Comet Leonard, discovered in January, may become bright enough at its closest approach to Earth that you can spy it in binoculars or even without any optical aid. The comet’s closest approach to Earth will be on Dec. 12. Look for it starting Dec. 14, just after sunset, as it will be barely above the horizon. You’ll need a clear view free of hills, buildings and trees looking toward the southwestern horizon. The comet will move from right to left along the horizon, under the planet Venus, over the course of a few nights.

A total solar eclipse occurs on Dec. 4, but you’ll have to be in Antarctica to see it.

Kelly Kizer Whitt fell in love with astronomy while a student at Sauk Prairie High School, earned her degree at UW-Madison and shares her love with this column.

Kelly Kizer Whitt fell in love with astronomy while a student at Sauk Prairie High School, earned her degree at UW-Madison and shares her love with this column.

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