• On June 23, 2014, Expedition 40 Flight Engineer Reid Wiseman captured this image which connects Earth to the International Space Station and to the stars. Among the "stellar" scene is part of the constellation Orion, near the center of the frame. The U.S. laboratory or Destiny is seen in the upper right.

  • This global view of the surface of Venus is centered at 180 degrees east longitude. Magellan synthetic aperture radar mosaics from the first cycle of Magellan mapping are mapped onto a computer-simulated globe to create this image. Data gaps are filled with Pioneer Venus Orbiter data, or a constant mid-range value. Simulated color is used to enhance small-scale structure. The simulated hues are based on color images recorded by the Soviet Venera 13 and 14 spacecraft. The image was produced by the Solar System Visualization project and the Magellan science team at the JPL Multimission Image Processing Laboratory and is a single frame from a video released at the October 29, 1991, JPL news conference.

Night Sights: Nature strings up the holiday lights with shows from Venus, Mars, stars

Sunday, December 4, 2016

While holiday lights adorn neighborhoods this season, the night sky delivers its own festive light display with three planets and the arrival of winter constellations.

December nights begin early as we approach the Winter Solstice with night sky viewing beginning around 6 p.m.

Looking southwest just after sunset, you can't miss Venus, a dazzling, gleaming light, hovering about a third of the way above the horizon.  Venus has been steadily ascending each night, as it tracks along its speedy orbit around the sun.

Each night in December, Venus moves a little higher.  It appears to be closing in on a bright red star higher up and to the south. This is no star, but is in fact the planet Mars.  Our red neighbor continues to dangle high in the southwest, just as it did last month and will continue to do into next year. 

The gap between Venus and Mars continues to close, setting the two worlds up for a nice encounter next month, from our earthly vantage point that is.

Look for Mercury in the west after sunset, struggling to rise above the trees. The little world ascends slightly through early December, and then takes a turn back toward the horizon mid-month.  After this, your chances of seeing Mercury quickly grow slim and by month's end, you're too late.

In the east around 8 p.m. the bright stars of Orion the Hunter are already above the horizon.

It's hard to miss the distinct three stars in a row of Orion's belt that line up vertically.  Above Orion look for the five brightest stars of the Pleiades star cluster. 

For stargazers, the stars of Orion and surrounding constellations are nature's holiday lights.  These constellations contain some of the brightest stars in the entire night sky.

Their appearance in the east during December is a cosmic way of heralding the season.