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December 2002: Venus and Mars

If you arise before the Sun -- which is pretty easy to do at this time of year-- look for a pair of planets to grace the dawn and predawn sky. All month long, Venus and Mars rise in tandem a good three hours before sunrise, shining well above the southeastern horizon at the crack of dawn.

You can't miss Venus -- the brightest heavenly body to illuminate the sky, aside from the Sun and Moon. Whereas Mars pales in comparison to Venus, it's still respectably bright but fades in the late morning twilight. If eluding naked-eye detection, focus your binoculars on Venus and chances are you'll see the ruddy planet glowering nearby.

As an added extra, the month begins and ends with the waning crescent moon, Venus and Mars forming a closely-knit threesome. The month's double feature takes place on December 1 and December 30.

You can give yourself an early Christmas gift on December 24 -- that is, if you're up one to two hours before the Sun. Venus and Mars slide by the famous double star Zubenelgenubi of the constellation Libra, the drama readily fitting into a single binocular field. Look for Mars to the right of Venus, then for Zubenelgenubi beneath of Mars.

Binoculars reveal that it's a double star, with the dimmer one shining above its brighter companion. Zubenelgenubi is thought to be a true binary -- or two stars revolving around a common center of gravity. Incidentally, Mars passes to the left of Zubenelgenubi on Christmas Day.

An unlikely couple, perhaps, Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, and Mars, the god of war, waltz around together for a month, lighting up the ballroom of a December dawn.

Copyright 2002 by Bruce McClure

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