If you have clear skies in the Northern Hemisphere, and feel like wrapping up warm between sunset on Christmas Day and sunrise on Boxing Day, you could try some planet hunting.
To begin, as the sun sets and the sky darkens, a bright star starts to shine in the west. That sounds familiar, but no, it has nothing to do with the birth of a king. Instead, it’s the planet Venus, shining brightly. As the sky darkens a little more, turn around to the east and another bright star slowly comes into view. This one is really easy to find as it’s the brightest object in that part of the sky. You may well recognize it as the planet Jupiter, which has been prominent in our skies over the past few months. Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system and is a great target for small telescopes — you can easily make out belts in the planet’s atmosphere and at least four of the orbiting moons.
Later in the night, as Jupiter drops low in the west, another planet is visible rising in the east. This one is noticeably red in color and has held a special place in our hearts over the years due to hints of life in its distant past. Its distinct red hue comes from the presence of vast quantities of a chemical called iron oxide covering its surface. As Mars heads towards the south and we move into the morning hours, the jewel of the solar system, Saturn, rises in the east. It’s quite easy to spot as it’s reasonably bright and has a pale yellow hue. This really is the one to turn a telescope to as even small birdwatching telescopes will reveal its glorious rings. From afar, the rings look like a giant disc surrounding the planet but they are actually made up of billions of tiny pieces of rock all orbiting the planet just like our moon orbits the Earth.
Our Christmas tour of the solar system is nearing an end, and as the sky brightens with the return of the sun in the east, eagle-eyed readers should try to pick out the faint glow of Mercury very low on the eastern horizon. Be very careful not to look at the sun directly and if the sun has popped up above the horizon, then you are too late for catching Mercury.