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In the Sky This Month

The year ends as it began, with the brilliant stars of winter climbing into the evening sky. By the end of December, dazzling Orion will be in good view by the time the sky gets dark. Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, will rise below Orion a bit later. The twins of Gemini stand to the left of the hunter, with Taurus, the celestial bull, above, continuing the never-ending cycle of stars and planets across the night sky.

December 13: Moon and Companions

The Moon and the planet Jupiter, which looks like a brilliant star, anchor a beautiful lineup in the southeastern sky at first light tomorrow. The much-fainter planet Mars stands to their upper right, with the star Spica farther along the same line.

December 14: More Moon and Companions

A bright arrow lines up in the south and southeast at dawn tomorrow. The crescent Moon forms the arrow’s feathers, with the shaft outlined by the equally spaced planets Jupiter and Mars, to the upper right of the Moon. The star Spica is the arrow’s tip.

December 15: Horsehead Nebula

A cloud of cosmic gas and dust known as the Horsehead Nebula stands just below Orion’s Belt, a line of three bright stars that rises almost straight up from the southeastern horizon by 8 p.m. The Horsehead is visible in fairly small telescopes.

December 16: Draco

Draco, the dragon, twists through the northern evening sky. It is low in the northwest at sunset and rotates below the North Star during the night. When Egypt built the pyramids of Giza, the North Star was Thuban, one of Draco’s stars.

December 17: Saturnalia

Today is the date of Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival tied to the upcoming winter solstice. It honored Saturn, a god of agriculture, and it was the biggest party of the year — a week-long holiday that ended with rounds of gifts.

December 18: Fornax

The constellation Fornax rises in the southeast shortly after nightfall. It’s not much to look at; its three brightest stars form a wedge that aims toward the south. In fact, it is so faint and so far south that it wasn’t drawn until the mid-1700s.

December 19: NGC 1316

One of the nearest galaxy clusters is about 60 million light-years away, in the southern constellation Fornax, which rises in the southeast in early evening. The cluster’s brightest member, NGC 1316, is a beautiful spiral galaxy.

Current moon phase

Full MoonFull Dec. 3, 9:47 am

Last quarterLast Dec. 10, 1:51 am

New MoonNew Dec. 18, 12:30 am

First QuarterFirst Dec. 26, 3:20 am

Times are U.S. Central Time.

Perigee December 4

Apogee December 18

The full Moon of December is known as the Long Night Moon or Moon Before Yule.