After a long, hot summer, it’s nice to know that the seasons are changing and cooler temperatures are finally on their way. Before we know it, many of us will be whining about the cold, and wishing for the return of summer!
While such frigid conditions are hard to imagine this time of year — after all, the start of our Northern Hemisphere winter is still officially three months away — we can get a sneak preview of the season by gazing skyward. Early morning risers can see the glistening stars of wintertime by heading outdoors a few hours before sunrise.
The brightest star in the northeastern sky is Capella, which sparkles like a jewel in the northwestern vertex of the constellation Auriga. Although Auriga represents a charioteer from ancient mythology, modern stargazers can probably best identify this figure as a pentagon of stars.
Stargazers with a vivid imagination might be able to connect its stars with lines to create the form of the head and horns of a bull. Look for the bright reddish star Aldebaran that marks the bull’s fiery red eye.
And surrounding Aldebaran is a V-shaped cluster of stars known as the Hyades. In the lore of the ancients, from Greece all the way to China, the Hyades has been associated with wet and stormy weather. Indeed, its name is said to come from an archaic Greek word meaning “to rain.”
Only a mere 150 light-years away, the Hyades forms the nearest open star cluster to Earth, and is thought to be only about 660 million years old. Though it appears that Aldebaran is part of this cluster, it’s actually only an illusion. Aldebaran lies less than half that distance away and appears in the foreground.
Riding on the back of the bull we find the Pleiades, more commonly known as the Seven Sisters. This tiny cluster is less than 400 light-years away and may be between 50 million and 100 million years old — a veritable cosmic youngster.
On a dark night, look carefully at the Pleiades to see how many stars you can count. Most stargazers can count six or seven, though this week the moon might be too bright to see that many.
Below Taurus lies the brightest and most majestic of all constellations: Orion, the hunter, one of the few such groupings that actually resembles its namesake. Its two northernmost stars mark the shoulders of the celestial giant, and its two southernmost form his knees. Across his midsection appear three equally bright stars that trace a straight outline that is his belt.
To the hunter’s left lies Gemini, the twins, marked by the two twin stars Castor and Pollux. And below Orion you’ll find the star Sirius, the brightest of the night sky, twinkling wildly just above the horizon.
Of course, if you’d prefer to sleep in you’ll still be able to see this wonderful sky during evening hours. You’ll just need to be patient for a few more months.
— Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. The opinions expressed are his own.