Long, dark winter nights are upon us, and while we may be dreaming of sunnier days, we must not forget that winter brings the stars to our doorstep.
With darkness settling in as early as 6 pm, even the youngest stargazers can get to know their night sky before bedtime. The winter sky is rich with constellations and bright stars that will reward any astronomer, new or experienced. But finding your way around the universe can be overwhelming, so having some waypoints to guide you will help.
Start with Orion. His belt of three stars is easy to find early in the evening as he steps over the southeastern horizon. Then turn to the north to find the big dipper- an asterism or small pattern of stars, which make up the large constellation of Ursa Major, the rectangle of its bucket low in the sky and its handle reaching below the horizon. Next, look straight up to see the “W” of Cassiopeia, and then into constellation Taurus to the nearby star cluster of the Pleiades. The bright stars of winter truly do reside in our galactic neighborhood: Most are within 1000 light years or 6 quadrillion miles of our planet, within a galaxy that is more than 100 times that expanse.
As you grow familiar with these neighborhood constellations, they become easier to pick out of the sky. Add a sky map or a planisphere into the mix, and you can begin to explore deeper, without leaving your backyard. You may discover that the big dipper can lead you to Polaris, the North Star, and that from a truly dark sky, the outer edge of our Milky Way galaxy shines brightly even in January.
Short winter days can leave us yearning for the warmth of summer, but with a warm coat, a hot cup of cocoa, and the spirit of adventure, the long dark night transforms into an opportunity to explore our stellar neighborhood.
Western Slope Skies is produced by the Black Canyon Astronomical Society. This episode was written and recorded by Lauren Ohlson.