Our Dazzling Winter Sky


Last updated 2/15/2024 at 12:13pm

These stars are so bright that they can be seen even with light pollution, but for the best view, go somewhere remote.

As cold as it is in many locations right now, you'll find it a wonderful opportunity for stargazing. The evening sky of January and February is the most dazzling of the entire year, and the stars seem to sparkle like diamonds against a dark winter sky.

Because these stars are the most brilliant of the entire year, you can enjoy them from even a mildly light-polluted area or under moonlight. But if you want a truly stunning sight, venture out to a remote location, allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness and you'll be amazed!

High overhead this month you'll find Jupiter, the largest planet of our Solar system. This giant world reflects so much sunlight that, even at its current distance of 462 million miles, it's easily the brightest object in our nighttime sky this week.

The brightest nonplanet, though, is the star Sirius, in Canis Major, the great hunting dog, also one of the nearest stars to Earth at only 8.6 light-years away. I love watching Sirius when it's low in the southeastern sky because it appears to twinkle so wildly. Watch as it flickers with many colors as its light passes through a thick column of turbulent air near the horizon on its way to our eyes.

Accompanying Sirius are seven other brilliant stars around the sky that, together, make up a third of the 25 brightest we can see. Let's take a look at them all in turn.

Capella, in Auriga, the charioteer, is the sixth brightest in the heavens. Sometimes known as the "Goat Star," Capella appears as a single star to the unaided eye, but the light we see comes from a group of four stars in orbit around a common center of gravity.

In Orion, we find two brilliant stars – Rigel and Betelgeuse -- each quite different from the other. Rigel is a blue-white supergiant star lying some 863 light-years from us, while Betelgeuse is a red supergiant about 520 light-years away. Both are immense stars, though, with Rigel about 70 times larger and Betelgeuse more than 800 times bigger than our sun!

Procyon is the brightest star in Canis Minor, the smaller hunting dog. One of the closest stars to Earth, Procyon lies only about 11.5 light-years from us. It has a companion white dwarf star orbiting nearby every 40 years.

Above Procyon lie the "twin stars" Castor and Pollux, so named because they mark the heads of the twin brothers of the constellation Gemini. Though they may appear similar, they're quite different. Castor lies 52 light-years from us and is made up of six pairs of stars orbiting each other. Pollux, on the other hand, is a single yellow-orange giant star lying 34 light-years away.

Finally, we find reddish-orange Aldebaran, marking the "fiery red eye" of Taurus, the bull. This red giant rotates so slowly it takes 520 days to spin just once.

I hope you can get out to enjoy some stargazing this month. If you do, please bundle up and take some warm liquids with you. I promise you'll be rewarded with a truly magnificent celestial sight!

Visit Dennis Mammana at dennismammana.com.

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