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Moon, Venus, and Mars

December 31, 2016

Long before the fireworks blaze across the midnight sky, the solar system offers a lightshow of its own: an alignment of the Moon and two bright planets. But like an old Charlie Chaplin film, it’s completely silent — nature adds no pops, cracks, or whistles to the visuals.

Start looking not long after sunset, when twilight still bathes the sky in Technicolor hues — from oranges and reds close to the horizon to deep blues above.

The Moon perches quite low in the southwest at that hour, growing more prominent as the curtain of night drops toward the horizon. Sunlight illuminates only a small fraction of the lunar disk that faces our way, so it looks like a thin crescent.

As the sky grows darker, though, the dark part of the disk becomes visible as well. Even though it’s nighttime there, that portion of the Moon is bathed in earthshine — sunlight reflected off of Earth. It’s quite bright, so it makes the entire Moon stand out.

The next-brightest light pops into view not long after sunset, to the upper left of the Moon: the planet Venus — the brilliant “evening star.” It outshines everything else in the sky at that hour except the Moon.

And before long, the third night light brightens into view to the upper left of Venus: the planet Mars. It looks like a fairly bright orange star. And it’s the last of the three to vanish from view, setting around 10 o’clock — bringing this beautiful but quiet lightshow to an end.


Script by Damond Benningfield


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