Innermost planet Mercury puts on its best morning display of the year for Northern Hemisphere observers from late November to early December. Skywatchers in the British Isles should find a location offering an unobstructed view of the southeast horizon about 45 minutes before sunrise to get the best views. This looping animation shows the changing configuration of Mercury, Mars and Virgo’s brightest star, Spica, from Nov. 18 through Dec. 3 at dawn. Note the span of a fist at arm’s length (about 10°) for scale, but the Moon’s apparent size on Nov. 24 and 25 has been enlarged for clarity. Animation by Ade Ashford, courtesy Astronomy Now

EYES TO THE SKY: Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Moon at dusk. Mars, Mercury dawn

As we approach the very shortest days of the year, the times of both dusk and dawn seem to belong more to daytime than night.

November 25 – December 8, 2019

Mount Washington — It is a jamboree, a planetary spree out there within the hour after sunset and, with different heavenly bodies, within the hour before sunrise. Venus and Jupiter, the brightest celestial objects next to the Sun and Moon, are a dynamic pair to observe at dusk close above the horizon in the southwest. Mercury, in the east at dawn, shines with unusual splendor after its Nov. 11 transit of the Sun. The little planet shares its best morning apparition of the year with Mars and bright star Spica.

As we approach the very shortest days of the year, the times of both dusk and dawn seem to belong more to daytime than night. For dusk, add an hour to sunset time, which is close to 4:20 p.m. – the earliest of the year – and take away an hour from sunrise, which is within minutes of 7 a.m. These are splendid times to enjoy the outdoors and to include children.

Image courtesy

This evening, the 25th, brilliant Venus and bright Jupiter shine side by side close above the southwestern horizon. Every day this week, Venus can be seen higher above the skyline as Jupiter loses altitude. Saturn appears diagonally to the left and 10 degrees above Venus. Ten degrees can be approximated by extending a fist at arm’s length between the two heavenly bodies. Begin to look 45 minutes after sunset.

New moon occurs tomorrow, the 26th. A delicate, waxing crescent climbs into view below Venus and Jupiter on the 27th, promising a spectacular sight close to the southwest horizon if you can catch it before moonset at 5:27 p.m. On Thursday the 28th, see the crescent near Venus. Moonset on the 28th is at 6:17 p.m. and about an hour later each night going forward.

Continue planetary observations on the opposite horizon first thing in the morning. In the hour before sunrise, the remaining two naked-eye planets – bright Mercury and dimmer, red Mars – sketch a showy diagonal with blue-white star Spica in the southeast. Thanks to Ade Ashford and Astronomy Now, an outstanding print and online astronomy publication from the UK, for the animation and accompanying text. Note that observing from the British Isles is, in this instance, accurate for our latitude.

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From the field

The Mercury Transit of the Sun on Nov. 11, 2019, from our friend amateur astrophotographer Kenneth Blumberg in Rockland County, New York: Turn the brightness up on your screen and search for the grey spot! Ken writes: ‘This shot was at 9:45am around 2 hours into the transit. After that it was visible but haze set in so I was happy to have gotten this.’ EXIF info: Canon 1DX Mark II. Canon 400mm with 1.4 x converter= 560 mm. ISO 640. f8. 1/125sec