■ Does the Sun already seem to be setting about as early as it ever will? You're right! We're still almost a month from the winter solstice — but the Sun sets its earliest each year around December 7th, if you're near latitude 40° north. And already the Sun sets within only about 3 minutes of that time.

A surprising result of this: The Sun actually sets a trace earlier on Thanksgiving than on Christmas — even though Christmas is around solstice time!

But in celestial mechanics, every seeming abnormality is balanced out by an equal abnormality somewhere else. The offset of the earliest sunset from the solstice date is balanced out by the opposite happening at sunrise: The Sun doesn't come up its latest until January 4th, well after the solstice. Blame the tilt of Earth's axis and the eccentricity of Earth's orbit.

■ As dawn begins on Friday morning the 26th, the waning Moon shines at the Sickle of Leo, as shown below.

When the waning Moon goes through last-quarter phase this month, it's passing through Leo high in early dawn.


■ Venus and Jupiter, the two brightest celestial objects after the Sun and Moon, continue to blaze during and after twilight this week. Venus is in the southwest, now at its highest and brightest of this apparition. Jupiter is is very far to Venus's upper left, high in the south to south-southwest.

Spot dimmer Saturn emerging between them as twilight fades. It's less than halfway from Jupiter to Venus early in the week, exactly halfway on December 4th.

■ The last-quarter Moon rises in Leo around 11 p.m. tonight. By dawn on Saturday the 27th it's high in the south below Leo's belly, as shown above. The Moon is exactly last-quarter at 7:28 a.m. Saturday morning EST.


■ Around 7 or 8 p.m. this week, the Great Square of Pegasus rests in its level position very high toward the south. (It's straight overhead if you're as far south as Miami.) Its western (right) side points very far down toward Fomalhaut. Its eastern side points down toward Beta Ceti, also known as Deneb Kaitos or Diphda, less far down and less directly.

Now descending farther: If you have a very good view down to a dark south horizon — and if you're not much farther north than roughly New York, Denver, or Madrid — picture an equilateral triangle with Fomalhaut and Beta Ceti as its top two corners. Near where the third corner would be (just a bit right of that point) is Alpha Phoenicis, or Ankaa, in the constellation Phoenix. It's magnitude 2.4, not very bright but the brightest thing in its area. It has a yellow-orange tint; binoculars help check. Have you ever seen anything of the constellation Phoenix before?


■ Jupiter's Great Red Spot should transit the planet's central meridian around 7:02 p.m. EST. Features on Jupiter are in fine view (closer to the central meridian than to the limb) for 50 minutes before and after they transit. A light blue or green filter helps a bit.

During this time, the tiny black shadow of Io will be crossing Jupiter. Bright little Io itself enters Jupiter's eastern edge at 7:16 p.m. EST. The shadow finally departs Jupiter's western edge at 8:34 p.m. EST.


■ What's the next most attractive star cluster in Taurus after the Pleiades and Hyades? Gotcha there, I bet! Maybe it's NGC 1647, between the horns of Taurus just a few degrees from Aldebaran and the Hyades. Matt Wedel calls it "a wonderful object for binoculars" in a really dark sky. It's fairly large as open clusters go and rich in faint stars. At a total magnitude of 6.4 Matt also calls it "visible to the naked eye under clear, dark skies," but for an extended object? I'd say he means the clear dark sky from a high desert mountaintop 50 miles from the nearest town, seen with a 20-year-old's wide pupil and an hour's dark adaptation. Hence, binoculars or a scope for the rest of us.

The cluster's location is easy: it forms a roughly equilateral triangle with Aldebaran and the other tip of the Hyades V. Just off its south edge you'll find "a fine optical double star," Matt writes, very wide, both orange, magnitudes 6.0 and 7.5. Have a good inspect using the chart with his Binocular Highlight column in the December Sky & Telescope, page 43.

Some, however, would instead give the rank of third-place Taurus cluster to NGC 1746, also between the Taurus horns. It's larger and perhaps a little more photogenic and eye-catching, located 3/5 of the way from Aldebaran to Beta Tauri. The two clusters often get confused not least because their NGC numbers are the same digits rearranged.


■ Mars is taking its sweet time emerging from behind the Sun's glare into the morning sky, as it does at the start of every apparition. But on Wednesday and Thursday mornings the curve of the crescent Moon points down to show where to look, as illustrated below.

The crescent Moon points the way to low Mars at dawn, Dec. 1-2, 2021
The waning crescent Moon points the way down to low little Mars in early dawn. The blue 10° scale is about the width of your fist at arm's length.


■ As the stars come out, the Cassiopeia W stands on end (its fainter end) high in the northeast. Watch Cas turn around to become a flattened M, even higher in the north, by late evening.

Two faint fuzzies naked-eye: The Andromeda Galaxy (M31) and the Perseus Double Cluster are two of the most famous deep-sky objects. They're both cataloged as 4th magnitude, and in a fairly good sky you can see both with the unaided eye. Binoculars make them much easier. They're located only 22° apart, very high toward the east at the end of twilight — to the right of Cassiopeia and closer below Cassiopeia, respectively. Later in the evening they pass more overhead.

Though similar in brightness they look rather different even to the naked eye, the more so the darker your sky. See for yourself. You can find them with the all-sky constellation map in the center of the November or December Sky & Telescope.


Comet Leonard passes M3. Comet Leonard (C/2021 A1) has probably brightened to 6th magnitude by tonight. It's high in the east before the very first light of dawn, crossing the Canes Venatici / Bootes border. North Americans late tonight will find it less than 1° below the 7th-magnitude globular cluster M3. Quite an interesting visual comparison to be made, and think photo opportunity!

The comet should peak around 4th or 5th magnitude meaning it'll only be a dim binocular object; a comet is more diffuse than a star around December 10th or 11th. By then it'll be much lower at the beginning of dawn, starting to lose its battle with morning twilight. See "Comet Leonard Races Across the Sky" in the December Sky & Telescope, page 48, with the necessary finder charts.


■ Vega still shines brightly well up in the west-northwest after dark. The brightest star above it is Deneb, the head of the big Northern Cross formed by the brightest stars of Cygnus. At nightfall the shaft of the cross extends lower left from Deneb. By about 11 p.m., it plants itself more or less upright on the northwest horizon.


■ Saturn is now exactly halfway between Jupiter and Venus; look during late twilight or shortly after. Although Saturn is a very respectable magnitude +0.7, the other two quite overpower it.

■ For West Coasters, Algol in Perseus should be in eclipse at minimum brightness, magnitude 3.4 instead of its usual 2.1, for a couple hours centered on 11:49 p.m. PST. Algol takes several additional hours to fade and to rebrighten.

■ New Moon (exact at 2:43 a.m. on this date Eastern Standard Time).

■ Total eclipse of the Sun for parts of West Antarctica. Partial eclipse covers all of Antarctica, much of the Southern Ocean, and nicks South Africa. See the December Sky & Telescope, page 50.


This Week's Planet Roundup

Mercury is out of sight in conjunction with the Sun.

Venus, a dazzling magnitude –4.9, shines in the southwest during and after twilight. Venus has reached its greatest height and greatest brilliancy for this apparition.

Mars, far and faint at magnitude +1.6, is gradually emerging low in the sunrise. Try for it with binoculars just above the east-southeast horizon about 45 minutes before sunup. See the graphic for Dec. 1-2 above. You're catching Mars at the start of its new apparition, which will run for almost two years.

Jupiter with Great Red Spot and two dark barges on Nov. 22, 2021.
Jupiter on November 22nd, imaged by Christopher Go in the Philippines. South is up. Because Jupiter is far past opposition, its following (eastern) edge is slightly shaded. Jupiter has shrunk to 38 arcseconds wide now but is still worth watching! The seeing often steadies in twilight, when Jupiter and Saturn are currently at their highest.

The South Equatorial Belt, with the Great Red Spot in its southern edge, is mostly pale. The North Equatorial Belt is relatively dark red along its south edge and sports two dark red barges. (Color and brightness contrasts are exaggerated here, compared to Jupiter's visual appearance, as they are in virtually every photo.)

Jupiter and Saturn, both in Capricornus, shine in the south to southwest during evening far upper left of Venus. Jupiter is the bright one at magnitude –2.3. Saturn, 16° to Jupiter's lower right, is mag +0.7, only 1/16 as bright.

Look 22° (two fists at arm's length) lower left of Jupiter for Fomalhaut, the Autumn Star, magnitude +1.2.

Saturn sets around 9 p.m. Jupiter sets a little more than an hour later.

Uranus (magnitude 5.7, in southern Aries above the head of Cetus) is high in the east after dark. See Bob King's story and finder chart.

Neptune (magnitude 7.9, at the Aquarius-Pisces border) is high in the south after dark.

All descriptions that relate to your horizon — including the words up, down, right, and left — are written for the world's mid-northern latitudes. Descriptions and graphics that also depend on longitude (mainly Moon positions) are for North America.

Eastern Standard Time, EST, is Universal Time (also called UT, UTC, GMT, or Z time) minus 5 hours.

Want to become a better astronomer? Learn your way around the constellations. They're the key to locating everything fainter and deeper to hunt with binoculars or a telescope.

This is an outdoor nature hobby. For an easy-to-use constellation guide covering the whole evening sky, use the big monthly map in the center of each issue of Sky & Telescope, the magazine of the American Astronomical Society.

Once you get a telescope, to put it to good use you'll need a detailed, large-scale sky atlas (set of charts). The basic standard is the Pocket Sky Atlas (in either the original or Jumbo Edition), which shows stars to magnitude 7.6.

Pocket Sky Atlas cover, Jumbo edition
The Pocket Sky Atlas plots 30,796 stars to magnitude 7.6, and hundreds of telescopic galaxies, star clusters, and nebulae among them. Shown here is the Jumbo Edition, which is in hard covers and enlarged for easier reading outdoors by red flashlight. Sample charts. More about the current editions.

Next up is the larger and deeper Sky Atlas 2000.0, plotting stars to magnitude 8.5; nearly three times as many. The next up, once you know your way around, are the even larger Interstellarum atlas (stars to magnitude 9.5) or Uranometria 2000.0 (stars to magnitude 9.75). And be sure to read How to Use a Star Chart with a Telescope.

You'll also want a good deep-sky guidebook, such as the big Night Sky Observer's Guide set by Kepple and Sanner.

Can a computerized telescope replace charts? Not for beginners, I don't think, and not on mounts and tripods that are less than top-quality mechanically, meaning heavy and expensive. And as Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer say in their Backyard Astronomer's Guide, "A full appreciation of the universe cannot come without developing the skills to find things in the sky and understanding how the sky works. This knowledge comes only by spending time under the stars with star maps in hand."

Audio sky tour. Out under the evening sky with your
earbuds in place, listen to Kelly Beatty's monthly
podcast tour of the heavens above. It's free.

"The dangers of not thinking clearly are much greater now than ever before. It's not that there's something new in our way of thinking, it's that credulous and confused thinking can be much more lethal in ways it was never before."
            — Carl Sagan, 1996

"Facts are stubborn things."
            — John Adams, 1770



Image of Tony


November 26, 2021 at 4:57 am

As you move nearer to the Arctic Circle, the earliest sunset and latest sunrise occur closer to the date of winter solstice (21 December 2021, 15:59 UT). So, at 50°N the earliest sunset is on December 12th and the latest sunrise is on December 31st.

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Anthony Barreiro

November 26, 2021 at 5:28 pm

In the illustration for Dawn, Dec 1 - 2, the labels for alpha and beta Librae are transposed.

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November 26, 2021 at 9:09 pm

Good catch Anthony Barreiro. I confirmed using Stellarium 0.21.2 and Starry Night Pro Plus 8 for my location, 02-Dec-2021 at 0614 EST/1114 UT. I tried to view Ceres again tonight but altocumulus clouds moving by are a problem for me tonight.

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New Jersey Eclipse Fan

November 27, 2021 at 1:54 pm

It’s always great reading a fresh set of posts! I temporarily left N.J. behind and arrived in The Holy Land just in time to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family. It’s a regular Thursday for Israelis, but many transplanted and visiting Americans keep the traditions we grew up with. Plus Chanukah arrives early this year with the first candle being lit tomorrow (Sunday) night, which was a factor in timing my trip. According to my compass app, I am located at 31°42’25”N 34°59’49”E, so my sky view is similar to that of some southeastern U.S. state borders. Without visual aids, our nightly celestial entertainment has been limited to the Venus-Saturn-Jupiter show. I’ll take it!

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November 28, 2021 at 8:50 am

New Jersey Eclipse Fan, good to see you back here. Enjoy the Festival of Lights, enjoy the blessings of liberty 🙂 Send me an email or I will send you one too 🙂 I have been busy lately enjoying the night skies as weather permits including my posts on the partial lunar eclipse at this site. Some guests enjoyed viewing too including some younger children 10 to 11 years old. Great fun.

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mary beth

November 29, 2021 at 12:10 pm

Very nice to hear all the good reports and the holiday fun! New Jersey Eclipse Fan, I hope you are having a wonderful time and enjoying the slightly different view of the stars! Happy Hanukkah! Rod you have certainly had a wonderful weekend! I am so glad the weather permitted you to see the stars! We have had lots of clouds in the evening but Venus has shone through brightly through cloud breaks and the upcoming week is looking good. I think our earliest sunset is around December 7. Tony’s post was very interesting, and it would be fun to compare various locations rise/set times. Anthony you have a Hawkeye!

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November 29, 2021 at 9:07 pm

mary beth, et al. I enjoyed some stargazing this evening and tracked down Ceres again. I used my 90-mm refractor with 32-mm plossl eyepiece. [Observed 1900-2030 EST/0000-0130 UT. Last Quarter Moon 27-Nov-2021 1228 UT. Ceres reached opposition on 27-Nov-2021. I was able to view Ceres at 31x tonight, true FOV ~ 96 arcminutes. I used Starry Night Pro Plus 8 and Stellarium 0.21.2 sky views. Starry Night Pro Plus 8 position in the sky more accurate. Ceres a bit more than 2-degrees angular separation from Gamma Tauri star and outlined by HIP19529 (F0III star) and HIP19641 (K0III or K1III star), a distinct red giant in the FOV. After tracking down Ceres position and viewing, I enjoyed low power views of M45 in Taurus. Lovely open star cluster viewing at 31x with nearly 96 arcminute FOV. This is my 5th observation of Ceres since 08-Nov, tracking its movement in Taurus, retrograde. Great fun as weather permits.]

I plan to track down comet A1 Leonard. This morning was clear and easy location to view at 0530 EST, however, I forgot all about this comet 🙂

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December 1, 2021 at 7:42 am

Comet Leonard is visible using my 10x50 binoculars. I was out early this morning viewing. [Observed 0500-0545 EST/1000-1045 UT. Sunrise 0706 EST/1206 UT. Waning crescent Moon in Virgo, very lovely sight this morning. I used 10x50 binoculars and observed comet Leonard (C/2021 A1) this morning, small faint fuzz. Stellarium 0.21.2 and Starry Night Pro Plus 8 reported apparent magnitude near 6.68 but site shows + 8.0, this looks more accurate. The comet was above Arcturus in Canes Venatici when I viewed not far from Coma Berenices, about 3 degrees 22 arcminute angular separation from Beta Comae Berenices star (apparent magnitude + 4.20/4.21) using Stellarium 0.21.2 angle mode and Starry Night Pro Plus 8 chart views. Christmas lights around my house on south side were bright too when I viewed 🙂 Temperature -2C, winds calm, a lovely early morning sky mostly clear with some cirrus.]

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New Jersey Eclipse Fan

December 1, 2021 at 1:54 pm

Thanks for all the best wishes. It rained in Israel today for the first time in a few weeks (there’s only two seasons, winter and summer). But instead of looking at it as a nuisance, all residents—regardless of religion— view it as a blessing, both agriculturally and hygienically. Things get dusty here very quickly! The skies are supposed to clear up tomorrow, so maybe I’ll get outside and do some night skygazing.

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December 1, 2021 at 4:51 pm

New Jersey Eclipse Fan, I set Starry Night and Stellarium to Jerusalem location. Currently Orion is up high there in the night sky. Sirius is near SE sky and high up too, a good 34 degrees elevation 🙂

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December 2, 2021 at 3:16 am

I arose early this morning (Wednesday, December 1) and spotted Comet Leonard for the first time, using my 10x70 binoculars. The comet was definitely fainter than the 6.2-mag. globular cluster M3, perhaps by nearly a magnitude. The difference in my result from yesterday morning when I didn't find the comet, and today, was that yesterday morning I was expecting the comet to be much brighter than it turned out to be, so I didn't prepare myself well by carefully mapping out a star hop to the comet. This time I did, determining in advance the length of each step of the star hop, Arcturus to d Bootis to 9 Bootis to M3 to the comet. (The fainter stars are both labeled on Chart 44 of the Sky & Telescope's Pocket Sky Atlas. You can use the degree scale on the inside front cover to measure the angular distances between stars on your star hop.) There are also finder charts in the December issue of Sky & Telescope, but the fainter stars are not shown as well, nor are they labeled.

After finding the comet, I used the 10x70s for a quick tour of favorite deep sky objects, M42, M44, M38, M36, M37, M35. The Pleiades M45 were hidden behind mountains to my west, but Aldebaran and part of the Hyades star cluster still were visible.

It seemed much warmer here in Palm Springs, CA this morning, in the 60's, than on Tuesday morning. The temperature reached 91 degrees here on Tuesday afternoon. On Sunday, the morning low was in the upper 40's.

On Thursday and Friday mornings, Dec. 2 and 3, the comet will be in the same binocular field as M3. If the sky is again clear, I expect to bring out my 6-inch Orion SkyQuest Dobsonian for a closer look. I expect that my lowest magnification, using a 32-mm Plossl eyepiece giving 37x, will provide the best view.

Don't forget to look for Mars at the end of your morning sessions, at least through binoculars. Almost exactly a year from now, Mars will be at its closest approach for the current apparition, and will outshine Sirius. Quite a change!

Wishing you clear skies!

Robert Victor

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December 2, 2021 at 9:07 am

StarsInMyAugen (Robert Victor), very nice report here 🙂 I checked Stellarium 0.21.2 using angle mode and Starry Night Pro Plus 8 for comet Leonard position tomorrow morning (Friday) at 0530 EST/1030 UT and M3. At my location in MD, a very good viewing elevation and the two are separated by less than one-degree apart in the sky (45-50 arcminutes or so). A telescope using low power eyepiece with wider field of view, could provide an enjoyable sight of both. Clouds permitting in my location, I plan to use my 90-mm refractor telescope at 31x to 71x views or so.

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