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Winter Stargazing | Winter 2008 Out Here Magazine

Night sky brightens during the coldest months

By David Frey
Picture by Veer

Look up into the sky on a clear winter night. You'll see a winged horse soaring in the west. A giant bull runs from the hunter overhead. To the east, a lion raises his head and roars.

That's what you'll see if you know what to look for in the constellations, at least. Winter is one of the best times to stargaze. The skies are clearer, the stars are sharper. All you need is a cup of hot chocolate.

"Go outside and look up," says Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer and planetarium programs director for the Franklin Institute, in Philadelphia, PA. "If you're in a rural place, you have this big sky effect — this whole panoply of stars overhead that go from horizon to horizon. The sky is rich, purple velvet. Then you have these diamonds stuck on the velvet background."

Many people stick to summer stargazing, when warm nights beckon. Some of the brightest constellations pop out in the winter, though, when nights are long and air is dark and clear.

"It's called the 'winter circle,'" says Pitts. Start with Orion the hunter, overhead. The three stars that make up his belt make for easy spotting. Two stars above mark his shoulders. Two below are his knee and ankle. That pink star at the upper left is Betelgeuse, an old red giant. At the lower right is Rigel, a young, hot white star.

Nipping at Orion's heels are his dogs, Canus Major and Canus Minor. Procyon, in the collar of Canus Minor, is the brightest star in the winter sky. They're on the hunt for Taurus, the bull, a V-shaped constellation to the right. Riding on Taurus' back are the seven sisters that make up the Pleiades, a cluster of tiny pinpoints. Some 300 stars make up the Pleiades, Pitts says, but most people, even under the clearest skies, won't pick out more than six or seven. Rounding out the winter circle, Gemini, the twins, hang over Orion's shoulder. Auriga, the charioteer, rides overhead.

In the west, Pegasus takes flight, a square on edge. Over the east, Leo the lion is a backward question mark. To the north rises the Big Dipper, Ursa Major to the ancient Romans — the big bear. Trace a line from the two outer stars and you'll find Polaris, the North Star, the end star in the Little Dipper, or Ursa Minor.

Look carefully, though, and you'll see more than stars. Meteors are constantly streaking across the sky as shooting stars. "If you're standing outside under a clear, dark sky, you can easily count 10 per hour," Pitts says. Satellites prowl slowly across the heavens: maybe the international space station, or just tumbling space junk.

Look closer still, and maybe grab a pair of binoculars. You'll see even more. The double star in the Big Dipper handle. A hazy nebula of newborn stars in Orion. A neighboring galaxy in Andromeda.

But don't worry about equipment, Pitts says. All you need is a pair of eyes and sense of wonder to enjoy the night sky.

"I say, just go outside as soon as it gets dark," he says. "See what you can see."

David Frey writes in Carbondale, CO.