December 26, 2012

Seven Bright Stars in the Winter Sky

Slackpole-SevenStars.jpgThere are more bright stars in the winter night sky than in the summer. This time of year, you can go outside and look up and see seven of the brightest stars arranged in a wheel or hexagon with one star in the center.

This year, the ring of stars is joined by Jupiter, which easily outshines them all. Go outside after 10 p.m. and look up, and there he is, brilliant white, the Optimus Prime of the planets. Close by and to the right about three finger-widths is golden-orange (1) Aldebaran, “the Follower” in Arabic. Looking down toward the horizon you can see (2) Betelgeuse, brighter and coppery-orange, the center star of the wheel. 

Betelgeuse is the shoulder of the constellation Orion, the hunter. Lower and to the right is his mighty foot, the bright blue-white (3) Rigel. Orion is most recognizable by his belt of three stars between his orange shoulder and blue-white foot. If the sky is dark, you can see the shield of stars that make the lionskin he holds before him and the dangle of stars below the belt that either represents his sword or else shows that Orion was swinging free, splendidly enjoying his primitive lifestyle in his natural state.

Orion’s belt points up toward Aldebaran and down towards the brightest star in the sky, intensely blue-white (4) Sirius, the Dog Star, Canis Major, trotting after his master. Sirius is not only the brightest star in the night sky but also one of the nearest, only 50 trillion miles away, or 8.6 light-years.

Several handbreadths to the left is (5) Procyon, bright and white. Procyon means “before the dog,” and is so named because it rises before Sirius. Overshone by its more brilliant partner, however, Procyon is only Canis Minor.

Going clockwise around the wheel, to the left and up are the twins Castor and (6) Pollux, a little on the orange side. And farther up by still more handbreadths is (7) Capella, a big and bright yellow fellow, the northernmost of the bunch. A hard right turn takes you back to Jupiter, a jovial witness to your discomfort from the cold and from looking up for so long.

There are other nighttime treats in the sky. Rarely, you can see the second-brightest star in the sky, Canopus, low in the southern sky when Sirius is at its highest. Canopus is so far south that it barely crosses the horizon, peeking through the trees, a seldom-seen blue-white horizon-hugger. Canopus has given its name to furniture in the pharaohs’ burial chambers; canopic jars held some of their extracted organs.

The Pleiades are a cloud of blue-white stars, a couple of hands west of Aldebaran; they are what the Follower is following. Look at them through binoculars and you will feel exalted to realize that we live in a universe so vast and so strange.