An ideal week for planet and stargazing unfolds as November turns to December. Stargazing begins in the afternoon with the setting of the star of our solar system, the sun, as it approaches its most southerly reach on the horizon, nearly directly southwest.
Sunset on November 28th is 4:30pm and from December 1 through the 6th, 4:29pm. The very earliest sunsets of the year, 4:28pm, are from December 7 through 9. Cinching evening darkness, new moon falls on the 29th, followed by evenings enhanced by a waxing crescent moon that sets early, leading to long, dark, moonless nights. First quarter (half) moon is on the 7th.
Soon after sunset, in the south-southwest, the star-like point of light that is planet Venus appears rather high now in the softly lit, pastel sky. Twenty minutes after sunset Venus is about 20 degrees above the horizon, which is 2 stacked fists extended at arm’s length. Venus, also known as the Evening Star, appears higher and brighter every day. The crescent moon arcs toward the goddess planet on December 2 and floats above it on the 3rd. See Venus’ crystalline light, second only in radiance to the moon in our skies, set into the southwest horizon at 7:22pm on the 28th and about 2 minutes later every evening.
Observing Mercury, the smallest of the planets and closest to the sun, presents quite a different adventure. On the 30th, half an hour after sunset, we’ll be straining to locate it in the southwest 4 degrees above the horizon. A delicate crescent accompanies Mercury on that day, when the planet sets at 5:28pm and moonset is at 5:46pm. Binoculars recommended. The little planet will brighten and appear higher in evening twilight as the week progresses. It is well worth searching it out during its brief appearance in our skies.
Fiery Mars lines up with Venus and Mercury, on a diagonal from top to bottom. The moon is below Mars on the 4th and above the red planet on the 5th. To the left and below Mars, a bright star, Fomalhaut, catches the eye. Connect Mars, Fomalhaut and Venus to form a wide, isosceles triangle.
Want to pronounce Fomalhaut and your other favorite star names?