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Unfortunately, Comet ISON (C/2012 S1) broke up as it passed the sun on 28 November. Although a part of it unexpectedly survived, it faded fast, and is not visible to the naked eye. We had hoped for a great spectacle in the early December sky, but we will now, it seems, have to wait for another large comet to come along.
Venus is a very bright evening star, reaching maximum brightness on 8 December. If you look at Venus through good binoculars or a telescope, you should easily be able to see its crescent shape. On 8 December, Venus is 59 million kilometres from Earth, or 3.3 light minutes away (the sun is just over eight light minutes away), and shines so brightly because of its relative nearness. As it approaches the Earth even more, until it is a mere 2.2 light minutes away on 11 January, its bright side is turned further away from us, and the crescent gets thinner and thinner, allowing less light our way. The moon is well to the north of Venus on 5 December. By the end of the month, Venus is low in the evening twilight.
Jupiter rises soon after sunset, and beautifully adorns the night sky as it approaches opposition early next month. If you have a good view of both west and east horizons, you may be able to see the two bright planets in the sky at once. On the night of 18/19 December, the moon is well to the south of Jupiter.
Mars is growing in brightness in the morning sky. It surpasses the brightness of nearby Spica on 23 December. On 26 December, the moon is well to the south of Mars.
Saturn climbs in the eastern dawn sky amongst the stars of Libra. On the morning of 29 December, the moon is nearby, and indeed occults it as seen from Antarctica (except the Peninsula) and much of the Southern Ocean.
On 20 December, the dwarf planet Ceres passes two minutes of arc north of the brighter star HIP65198 in Virgo. Look out for it through good binoculars or a telescope.
Look out for the Geminid meteors around 13 and 14 December.
On the day of dark moon, 1 January, if you are in the northern hemisphere you may just be able to see a really thin crescent of moon above the sun straight after the sun sets.
You may be able to see Venus and the very thin crescent moon together on the evening of 2 January, and at the end of the month you may be able to see Venus in the morning sky near to the very old moon on 29 January. In between, on 11 January, Venus passes between Earth and sun, well to the north of the sun as seen from Earth. At its closest to Earth, it is a mere 39.8 million kilometres or 2.2 light minutes away, a quarter of the distance to the sun, and only about a hundred times the distance to the moon. Our sister planet comes this close only every eight years. Observing Venus in this position is very difficult, but it is well to the north of the sun, and if you are in the northern hemisphere, you can try to see its very bright but micro-thin crescent just before sunrise, or just after sunset. It is very low in the ESE/WSW, and hidden in the twilight, but if you have binoculars or a telescope, you may just be able to make it out. If you do this in the morning, make sure you stop before the sun actually rises.
Jupiter comes to opposition on 5 January, and effortlessly dominates the night sky. It is closest to Earth late on 4 January (UT), when it is just under 630 million kilometres or 35 light minutes away. It lies between Castor and Pollux and the easily recognisable shape of Orion. Jupiter’s diameter is about eleven times Earth’s, and its mass is 318 times greater. By volume it is nearly one and a half times bigger than all the other planets in our system put together, and almost all of the rest is the low density Saturn, resulting in Jupiter’s mass being over two and a half times the combined mass of the others. Jupiter’s mass is so great that the centre of mass of the Sun and Jupiter combined is outside of the sun. The nearly full moon is south of Jupiter on the night of 14/15 January.
On the morning of 23 January, the waning moon, Mars and Spica are close in the sky. Mars is slightly brighter than Spica, the bright star of Virgo.
Further east, Saturn rises in the early hours. At the start of the month, it is brighter than Mars but, about half way through, Mars surpasses it. The moon is near Saturn on the morning of 25 January, and occults it over the far south Pacific and (in daylight) southern South America.
As Mercury comes round towards Earth’s side of the sun once more, it emerges very brightly, but very low down, into our western evening skies towards the end of the month. Look for it as the sky darkens after sunset.
Look out for the Quarantid meteors around 3 or 4 January.