Editor’s Note: Longtime Maine Skies writer Clair Wood has decided to end his long-running column. We are so grateful to Clair for his many years of interesting and informative looks into the planetary movements above Maine.

It was in 1976 that I published my first column in the Bangor Daily News and now, forty years later, this will be my last. I leave with sadness but also buoyed by remembering all of the great events that have taken place from the Voyager’s journey to the planets, Martian landings, the Space Station, and the Hubble Space Telescope opening the universe to our eyes. What a great era it was and hopefully will continue to be. I want to thank the BDN and the many editors who have put up with me over the years and I especially want to thank my readers for their many kind letters and emails. I will always remember notes from teachers and students and folks who said Maine Skies adorned their refrigerators every month. Continue to watch the skies and be awed by the universe about us. Farewell!

Focus on the planets

Three bright planets, Mercury, Venus, and Mars, line up above the southwest horizon during the evening hours while Jupiter maintains a lonely vigil in the early morning sky.

Mercury is low in the southwest after sunset on Dec. 1 with a nearly new Moon standing directly above it. Mercury will remain in view, although getting lower in the sky and dimmer with each passing day, until it is lost from view around midmonth.

Venus, aka the “Evening Star,” shines brightly in the southwest as the twilight deepens outshining every celestial object other than the Moon.

Mars is dimming but still can be spotted about an hour after sunset because of its distinctive ruddy color however it is too distant for any details to be visible. Mars will soon have its closest pairing with Neptune in more than 700 years as the year draws to a close.

Jupiter rises about two hours after midnight as the month begins and is the brightest object anywhere in the morning sky. A small telescope will reveal the giant planet’s surface belts and bands and the continual dance of the four major moons around and across the face of the planet.

Saturn is hidden from view until it greets Christmas morning hovering above the southeastern horizon about an hour before dawn.

Uranus is high in the southeast at nightfall among the stars of Pisces. Its distinctive blue-green disk will be readily visible with binoculars.

Neptune is fairly high in the south among the stars of Aquarius appearing as a blue-gray disk. On New Years Eve, Neptune will be nestled so close to Mars it will appear to be moon of the Red Planet.

December events

1 Sunrise, 6:52 a.m.; sunset, 3:56 p.m.

2 Look to the southwest about a half hour after sunset where Venus is to the left of the crescent Moon. Just above the horizon, and far to the duo’s lower right lies Mercury.

4 Mars is situated to the left of the waxing Moon high in the southwest about an hour after sunset. Venus shines brightly to the lower right of the pair.

7 Moon in first quarter, 4:03 a.m.

9 Looking south an hour after sunset you may spot a large triangle with Mars at its apex, Venus as the right base point and the star Fomalhaut the left base point.

12 The Moon is at perigee or its nearest approach to the Earth for the month. Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the Bull, is near the lower left of the Moon at nightfall.

13 Full Moon, 7:06 p.m. The full Moon of December is known as the Cold Moon or Long Night Moon.

14 This should have been the peak night for the Geminid meteor shower but all but the brightest will be obscured by the full Moon. The normal shower of about 120 meteors per hour will be reduced to one-tenth of that number.

18 The Sun enters Sagittarius on the ecliptic.

20 The Moon is in the last quarter, 8:56 p.m.

21 The winter solstice occurs at 5:44 a.m. At this point the Sun is at its farthest point below the celestial equator and starts its return journey back to the northern hemisphere. The Sun is in the astrological sign of Capricornus at the solstice. Contrary to popular belief the Earth is not at its farthest point from the Sun, aphelion, on this date. In fact, our nearest approach, perihelion occurs on Jan. 4, 2017 and the last aphelion was on July 4, 2016.

22 The Ursid meteor shower peaks tonight. This is a relatively sparse shower of about 10 meteors per hour originating out of Ursa Minor, the “Little Bear.”

25 Moon at apogee or farthest distance from Earth. Merry Christmas!

29 New Moon, 11:53 a.m.

31 Sunrise, 7:13 a.m.; sunset, 4:04 p.m.