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Bright planets, morning and evening

Can't sleep? Dog whining to go out before dawn? Got an impossibly early commute? Well, here's something to adorn the darkness of your early-morning, so-called life. Venus, Earth's sister planet, is up well before dawn this week, and about as bright as she ever gets. The forecast is good.

Look east after 4 a.m. That bright light you see in the sky is not a jetliner looking for BWI. It's the Goddess of Love, shining with sunlight reflected off her thick mantle of noxious clouds. The second planet from the sun will reach its most brilliant on the morning of the 23rd - a "magnitude minus-4.3." That's astronomer-speak for very, very bright. They say it's 19 times brighter than the brightest star. That star would be Sirius, visible low in the southeastern sky at 4:30 a.m., below the familiar winter constellation Orion.

Mars is up there, too. Look about halfway up the southeastern sky after 4:30 a.m., above Orion's head. It's pretty bright now, too, and reddish, of course. Hard to miss. Dust storms on the Red Planet have subsided, and NASA's twin Mars rovers are once again on the move. One has just entered Victoria crater, the biggest either of the robots has yet encountered.

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Still asleep before the sunrise? Well, you can satisfy your craving for naked-eye planets in the evening this week, too. Look to the southwest after sunset. That bright "star" - the first to appear as the evening sky darkens - is Jupiter. A good pair of binoculars and a steady place to rest them on a clear night will reveal up to four of the planet's moons - tiny dots of light lined up on either side of the planet's disk.

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