Driftless Dark Skies

John Heasley

Venus has been a shining Evening Star this spring, summer, and fall, shining brilliantly in the west after sunset. We have a final chance to enjoy it this month before it disappears for a few weeks and then becomes the Morning Star for winter, spring and summer 2022.

As you look southwest after sunset this month, Venus is the first and brightest object to emerge from the twilight. When the sun sets around 4:30 on Dec. 1, Venus is two outstretched fists above the horizon to the left of where the sun went down. It remains visible for over two and a half hours after sunset. By Dec. 31, Venus is just a fist above the horizon and sets an hour after the sun. If you have binoculars and can hold them steady, be sure to see how Venus has a waning crescent phase looking much like the moon. You may even notice it growing in size as Earth and Venus move closer together.

Venus is a great guide to the other planets this month. Jupiter is higher (in the south) and to its left (about three fists) and will be the second shiny thing to emerge in the twilight. Then creamy Saturn will appear between Jupiter and Venus. Enjoy the waxing crescent moon passing below all three worlds: Venus on Dec. 6, Saturn on Dec. 7, and Jupiter on Dec. 8. Mercury joins the gathering later in the month. Look for it below Venus around Dec. 26. Watch as Mercury’s orbit moves it a little further from the sun, while Venus’ orbit moves it closer to the sun. The two planets will be side by side on the last day of 2021 with Mercury dimmer on the left and Venus brighter on the right. You can complete your tour of all five visible planets by heading out the morning of New Year’s Eve to see Mars (left and dimmer) and the bright red star Antares below the waning crescent moon in the southeast around 6:30 a.m. before sunrise.

Venus may even make it possible to spot a comet as a finale to the year. Comet Leonard is not predicted to be as bright as Comet NEOWISE was in summer 2020, but comets are often surprising. It passes closest to Earth on Dec. 12 and will appear low in the western sky after sunset. It should be visible as a fuzzy patch with binoculars. Try sweeping the sky between Venus and the horizon around Dec. 15. Each night it will be a little further to the left and fading as it moves away from the Earth and may be too dim to see by the Winter Solstice on Dec. 21. 

Wishing you a wonderful winter and 2022 with the planets and stars and maybe even comets.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador, with the IAU as a Dark Skies Ambassador, and with International Dark-Sky Association as an Advocate. For more information about stargazing in southwestern Wisconsin, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies.