Night Sky Interlude -- Winter Skies

These stars and constellations can be seen late evening (about 10pm) in Winter. After midnight, you will be seeing Spring stars starting to rise, and we'll get to those later...

The Winter Sky is dominated by the Hunt, with the great hunter Orion engaged in battle with Taurus the Bull, while Orion's hunting dog Canis Major stays at his heels.

Things in red are important to know.

Orion the Hunter

Orion was a great hunter of Greek mythology, a demi-god born of Poseidon and a mortal woman Euryale. He fell in love with Merope, the daughter of the king of Chios. The king agreed to let Orion marry Merope if he would kill all the beasts in the land. Orion did, but the king reneged on the deal. Orion got drunk and raped Merope, and was blinded by the king in retaliation. Later, Orion was healed and eventually boasted to Artemis (the goddess of the hunt) that he could kill every animal on Earth. The Earth goddess Gaia overheard him, and sent a giant scorpion to kill him. After his death both he and the scorpion were placed in the sky as a warning to others. The scorpion continues to chase Orion -- when Orion sets, the Scorpion rises....

Rigel (RI-jel) - blue supergiant star (at lower right). Very massive, luminous star.

Betelguese (BEETLE-juice) - red supergiant star (upper left). A massive star nearing the end of its life, it is bigger than the radius of the Earth's orbit.

Great Orion Nebula - In Orion's dagger, a giant cloud of gas inside which many new stars are forming. These young, hot stars heat the gas, causing it to fluoresce (glow).

Taurus the Bull

Taurus the bull is often thought to be linked to the Greek god Zeus, who took the form of a bull to kidnap the princess Europa.

Aldebaran (al-DEB-a-rahn) - "the eye of the bull". A red giant star, nearing the end of its life. The stars in Orion's belt point "upwards" towards Aldebaran.

The Hyades and Pleiades (HI-a-deez and PLEE-a-deez): two nearby star clusters. The Hyades are a "middle aged" (~600 million years old) star cluster, while the Pleiades are younger (~ 100 million years old) and also more distant.

Canis Major (the Great Dog)

Canis Major, the Great Dog, is Orion's hunting dog, at his heels. He clearly is smart enough not to get in between Orion and Taurus!

Sirius (SEER-i-us) - brightest star in the sky. A nearby, bright, middle-aged star. It is actually a binary star system, with one of the two stars being a white dwarf. A white dwarf is the remnant left behind when a star like the Sun reaches old age and ejects its outer layers. The white dwarf is about the size of the Earth, but has a star-like mass, making it an extremely dense star. The stars in Orion's belt point "downwards" towards Sirius.

Gemini (The Twins)

Castor and Pollux were the twin sons of Leda, but had different fathers -- Pollux was the son of the god Zeus and therefore immortal, while Castor had a mortal father and was himself mortal. When Castor was killed, Pollux gave half his immortality to Castor, allowing them both to spend time between Mt Olympus and Hades.

Castor and Pollux - two fairly bright stars of nearly equal brightness, hence "the Twins".

The Winter Circle

The Winter circle is not a constellation, but just a pattern of bright stars: Castor, Pollux, Sirius, Rigel, Aldeberan, and two more:

Capella (Kah-PEL-a) - a quadruple star system. Just about directly overhead around 9pm this time of year.

Procyon (PRO-see-yon) - similar to the Sun

Solar System objects

This winter (Jan/Feb 2017), the following planets are easily visible:Both Venus and Mars set a few hours after sunset.

Jupiter rises in the east around midnight and is low in the southern sky, and very bright, just before sunrise.