Uncle Bob's Astronomy Pages
Winter Night Sky Favorites
(and how to find them)
[This series of four articles, one per season, was written for general interest and to assist those who need an introduction to prominent features of the starry night through the year.]
The list is organized for naked eye or binocular viewing. Objects in the west or south will be going out of season, so you should find them first. Objects in the east or north are coming into season, so you can follow them for a long time. A sky map can be found below.
1. Andromeda Galaxy. Look about midway between the Great Square of Pegasus and the W-shape of Queen Cassiopeia, it'll be high up and a little west. You can see it with naked eye once you learn its location. The galaxy is round like our Milky Way, but it is tilted away from us somewhat, so that it looks like a long, fuzzy streak.
2. The Double Cluster. From the W, go a little ways toward the top of the sky; you should see a smudgy object. In general, the smudgy looking objects are the good ones for binoculars to investigate. The Double Cluster is a pair of star groups. What do you observe as differences between them?
3. Planets travel in almost the same path in our sky as the sun. In early 2004, look after sunset for three planets. The brightest, Venus, is southwest in the sky. Higher, and to the east will be Mars, and Saturn will be in Gemini high up in the sky. Saturn's rings have a marked tilt this year, and they and some moons shouls be visible through a modest telescope. Jupiter will be along toward midnight. Can you see at least two moons of Jupiter? Try binoculars. Four moons are possible on a dark, clear night. Note that the sky map is from 2001, and therefore it does not show Jupiter and Saturn in their current locations.
4. Two angry stars. Find Orion, the Hunter, just southwest of Gemini. This constellation most resembles a person. He's got two shoulders, a belt of three stars, a sword of three, two feet, and a head, somewhat dim, but hunters get by on instinct. Notice that one of Orion's shoulders is reddish in color? This is Betelgeuse (beetle-juice is close enough!). Look 15 degrees west and a little north. Find a sideways V formation, opening to the east. It also has a red star in its lower fork. This constellation is Taurus the Bull, and the star is Al-DEB-aran, the angry eye of the bull. Which of the two red stars looks redder? What colors would you say they were? Everyone sees the colors differently.
5. While we're on color, look at Orion's westerly foot. It is a blue star, the hottest burning type. (Red stars are the coolest.) The bright blue foot of Orion is named Rigel (RYE-gel). Stars that burn this hotly are not expected to last long maybe only ten thousand years. That's not a long time when you consider that our sun will live for ten billion years, and it's only halfway along. Stars were the best friends of sailors long ago. They used stars to tell where they were, and where they were headed on the open seas.
6. Look at Orion's sword. Does one of the three stars have a halo or a fuzzy look? Aim for the middle star. It is the Orion Nebula, and it is a big ball of dust and gas. This is where stars are being born. Yes, you will see a star, or stars, in its center. In fact there are hundreds of new or developing stars in this nursery.
7. The Pleiades. Remember going from red Betelgeuse to red Aldebaran? Go a bit further in that direction and you'll come to the Pleiades. We've moved west, and so the Pleiades rise before Taurus and Orion. The Pleiades is a tight cluster of bluish stars which look to me like a squarish dipper. I've heard people mistakenly call them the Little Dipper, but there is another constellation with that name. Without binoculars you might distinguish six or more stars. How many can you count with binoculars? Will one of those young stars someday have a planet like earth?
8. Gemini, the Twins. Orion's sore shoulder (Betelgeuse) raises a faint weapon over his head. This club, or whatever, grazes the feet of the twins. Further out of harm's way are their two bright heads, I mean stars, named Castor and Pollux. This is another pair which are good for a color comparison.
9. The Beehive. You will find the next constellation east of Gemini, but it is very faint. Its name is Cancer, the Crab. You are lucky to make out four stars in a forked stick formation. The fork is open downward. Just a tiny bit west and north of the middle star is a busy cluster of stars so busy it's called the Beehive and it is labeled M44 on the map. Some observers say it looks like the shape of a domed beehive, too.
10. The Big Dipper. Look to the northeast. There are seven bright stars creating the most recognized shape of all. Four stars make the bowl, and three more make a bent handle. The bowl will be rising higher in the sky all spring, spilling its contents down the handle. Even though most people know the Dipper, it is not a constellation. It is part of the constellation Ursa Major, or the Great Bear. Your last challenge for now is to look at the bend in the handle. You will see two stars at that location. You might even see both stars with the naked eye. There are many interesting double stars in the sky, but separating many of them requires a telescope.
I hope you learned a little and had fun a lot. If you didn't find everything, keep trying. Ease of seeing is very unpredictable from night to night because clouds can be blocking the very thing you are looking for. Even on clear nights, the light of the moon can interfere with many of the dimmer objects. If you have comments or questions, send me an email.
When springtime rolls around, there will be a whole new set of objects to look for, as we see a new part of the sky after sunset. I wish you, and Orion, happy hunting.