With its crisp air and clear skies, wintertime lends itself to stargazing. Whether it’s curling up by the campfire, taking a midnight stroll or enjoying an evening hayride, there’s something magical about the night sky that draws our gazes upwards. Stars have been a wonder to mankind for centuries, with named constellations dating back almost 6,000 years. Though it takes practice, this pastime can bring joy to the lives of many – night after night.
The Big Dipper
Though many constellations are only visible certain times of year, the Big Dipper is an exception. It’s a circumpolar star cluster, meaning it never sets.
To find the Big Dipper, it’s easiest to start by searching for its “handle,” which is made up of three stars that form an obtuse angle. Its location will change as it swings to the west, 15 degrees for every hour until dawn, when it finally comes to rest low on the northwest horizon. Attached to this trio will be the remaining four stars of the bowl, which form a trapezoid. After you’ve initially found this star pattern, it’s often easy to spot again.
The North Star
Famous for guiding lost sailors through the night, the North Star is an icon and a beacon in the dark. Contrary to popular belief, Polaris is not the brightest star in the sky, actually ranking at about 50th brightest. What makes this star so special is that it holds nearly still while the entire northern sky rotates around it. Because of this reliable steadiness, the North Star makes an excellent fixed point for celestial navigation and astronomy.
The Big Dipper is a great way to find Polaris. Start by finding the Big Dipper’s pointer stars, Dubhe and Merak, which are the lower and upper right-stars of its bowl. Draw a straight line through these two stars, traveling “upward” in orientation to the bowl. Move about 5 times the distance between Dubhe and Merak to locate the North Star.
Orion, named after a hunter in Greek mythology, is a bright, easy to recognize constellation that is most visible during autumn mornings or winter evenings. According to Greek mythology, Orion was a giant who bragged about his power to hunt down every beast of the earth. Mother Nature, angered by his arrogance, sent a giant scorpion to destroy him. Both man and beast now lay among the stars.
To find Orion in the wintertime, look toward the southeast. Its seven bright stars form an hourglass-shape, with the four outer stars shaping the rectangle of Orion’s body and the three center stars – Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka – aligning to make Orion’s Belt. Orion’s belt is an easy starting landmark, as it consists of three bright stars in a short, straight line.
Once Orion has been found, it can be used to spot several other constellations. Taurus the Bull is a great example. According to myth, Taurus was actually the god Jupiter in disguise, who used the ruse of a white bull to get close to the woman he loved, Europa. This Zodiac constellation appears to be charging at the giant Orion, and is easy to spot by its distinctive “V” shape. In fact, if you did not know that Taurus was a bull, it might look like a giant, leftward tilting Y.
Turn towards the southeast at around 8 p.m. for the best odds of sighting this pair. Follow the line of Orion’s belt to the right until you reach the “V” star pattern nearby. This is Taurus’s face, and is made up of an open star cluster called Hyades. His shoulder, similarly, consists of a galactic cluster named Pilades, also known as the Seven Sisters. If you follow this shape to the lower line of the “V” you will come across one of the brightest stars in the winter sky; Aldebaren. This represents the eye of the Bull.
With a little practice, it’s amazing how many tales of the night sky can be uncovered. The ancient Romans and Greeks seemed to have it right; when they looked toward the heavens they didn’t just see stars, but stories. Passed on through history, stargazing has since become a cherished pastime and a wonderful new hobby to discover.