Starstruck

5 Sky Events This Week: Jupiter Parties, Geminids Fly, and Saturn Rises

December diamonds crown the night sky, sights for stargazers as the solar system's royalty dances.
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Stargazers can get their best views of Saturn, the Lord of the Rings, starting this week.


Stellar diamonds and the King of the Planets provide some of the celestial treasures in store this week for sky-watchers.

Moon walks dog. Late at night on Monday, December 8, look for the moon rising in the eastern sky, surrounded by some of the brightest stars of winter.

To the waning gibbous moon's upper left will reside Gemini's twins—Castor and Pollux. Meanwhile, to the moon's lower right, the "big dog" constellation will sparkle with Canis Minor's brightest star, Procyon.

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This illustration shows the moon rising in the east surrounded by some of winter's brightest stars.


Diamond stash. On Wednesday, December 10, look for the moon to point the way to a beautiful, bright, open star cluster in the constellation Cancer, the Crab.

Messier 67 lies some 3,000 light-years from Earth, but it will appear only one degree from the moon. That is equal to the width of your thumb held at arm's length.

The cluster itself shines at magnitude 6.1 and appears about as wide as the full moon in the sky, making it an easy target for binoculars.

Through a small telescope, its hundreds of stars appear to form pretty chains and clumps across the sky.

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This illustration shows the moon sitting next to the bright open star cluster M67.


Jupiter trio. Late at night on Thursday, December 11, face the rising moon in the low eastern sky as it forms a stunning cosmic triangle with brilliant Jupiter and the star Regulus.

All the action takes place in the constellation Leo, the Lion, with the moon parking to the right of the beast's heart. Regulus is the 21st brightest star in the entire sky and lies some 79 light-years away. Meanwhile, perched above the moon is the creamy-colored Jupiter, a mere 40 light-minutes from Earth.

Try spotting the gas giant's four largest moons. They will light up beside the King of Planets like a row of ducks, even when viewed with nothing more than binoculars. Train a small telescope on the largest planet in the solar system to see cloud bands and the Great Red Spot, a hurricane three times the size of Earth.

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Jupiter forms a triangle with the moon and the star Regulus.


Geminids peak. After darkness falls on Saturday, December 13, look for the annual Geminid meteor shower to peak throughout the night and into the predawn hours.

However, since the glare of the moon will interfere with the cosmic fireworks show into the early morning, the best time to catch the meteors will arrive before midnight. The shooting stars will seem to radiate out from their namesake constellation, Gemini, the Twins, which rises in the east by late evening.

Look downstream from the constellation to catch its sparks. Expect anywhere from 20 to 30 meteors per hour under suburban skies, and as many as 60 to 100 under dark skies.

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Look for Saturn to return to our early morning skies as it slowly moves away from the glare of the sun.


Saturn rising. Early risers on Sunday, December 14, can check out magnificent Saturn burning bright in the southeastern sky just before dawn.

The best time to view this crown jewel of the solar system arrives about 45 minutes before sunrise, when the planet will be about 10 degrees above the horizon. Point even the smallest backyard scope at Saturn to clearly see its rings, along with a handful of its retinue of moons.

And don't worry if you get clouded out—Saturn will slowly move out of the glare of the morning sun as it rises earlier and earlier in the coming weeks and months. The best is yet to come for the Lord of the Rings.

Happy hunting!

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter, Facebook, and his website.

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