The stars at night

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The Independent Online
The planet Jupiter, a brilliant feature of this autumn's skies, is now growing fainter and setting earlier. Mid-month, it goes down just two hours after the Sun. But Saturn is still with us, shining steadily in the south west throughout the month.

Above Saturn lies the Square of Pegasus, and higher up again the Andromeda Galaxy. Visible only on dark nights, when its faint glow is not drowned out by moonlight or light pollution, the Andromeda Galaxy is the nearest large star-city to our own Milky Way - some 2.2 million light years away, or 13 million million million miles (21 million million million km).

In the east, look for the beautiful little cluster of stars called the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. Along with bright red Aldebaran, the Pleiades are the forerunners of the brilliant winter constellations: Orion the hunter, Gemini the twins, and the two dogs - Canis Major and Canis Minor.

The early morning skies are graced by two planets. Mars is rising just before midnight, under the crouching shape of Leo, the lion. Low in the early dawn sky, you can spot the brightest planet of all, lovely Venus.

The night of 13-14 December will bring one of the year's most spectacular displays of shooting stars. Meteors from the Geminid shower will rain down from the north-east part of the sky, possibly at the rate of one a minute. These "shooting stars" are not stars at all, but fragments from an asteroid, Phaethon, that crosses the Earth's orbit. At its closest to the Sun, Phaethon is well within the orbit of the innermost planet, Mercury. It was discovered as recently as 1983, and may be the "missing link" between comets and asteroids: a comet that has lost all its gases.

DECEMBER DIARY (all times GMT)

3 Moon at last quarter 5.06am

10 New Moon 4.57pm

13 maximum of Geminid meteor shower

17 Moon at first quarter 9.31am

21 winter solstice 2.06pm

24 Full Moon 8.41pm

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