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A Winter Sky Sneak Preview

 

Last updated 9/21/2021 at 12:29pm

Winter sky preview before dawn.

After another sizzling summer in the southwestern desert, I'm happy to know that the seasons will soon be changing and cooler temperatures are not that far off. Before we know it, many of us will be whining about the cold and the snow and wishing for the return of summer!

While such frigid conditions are hard to imagine during late summer, 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.

In the early morning of mid-September, you'll quickly spot the brightest star in the northeastern sky; known as Capella, it sparkles like a jewel in the northwestern vertex of the constellation Auriga. Though Auriga represents a charioteer from ancient mythology, modern stargazers can probably best identify this figure as a pentagon of stars. Interestingly, the star on the opposite side of the pentagon from Capella, known as El Nath, is shared with its neighbor constellation Taurus, the bull.

Stargazers with vivid imaginations might be able to connect these stars with lines to create the form of the head and horns of a bull. Look for the bright reddish-orange 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 the Earth and is thought to be barely 660 million years old. Though it appears that Aldebaran is part of this cluster, this is actually only an illusion; Aldebaran lies less than half that distance away and just appears along the same line of sight.

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 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 easily count six or seven, but check out how many are visible through binoculars!

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 stars form his knees. Across his mid-section appear three equally bright stars that trace a straight line outlining the hunter's 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!

Visit Dennis Mammana at dennismammana.com.

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