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By Mark Jankowski
Ingram Planetarium Director
The twins, a crab, a rabbit, two dogs, a bull, a hunter and even a dove can be seen looking down from the winter sky. The weather lately has really given us the feeling that winter is here. Go out on a clear night, look up, and the stars reveal that winter is here. The same as they have done for eons. At 9 p.m. everyone is up, at least everyone regarding the winter constellations. Time for star school and a lesson in winter star groups.
We are blessed living here; the winter evenings are mild, which allows us to get out and enjoy the best stars of the year. The winter stars are bright because of the particular part of the Milky Way we are looking toward while viewing the sky. The winter constellations are the easiest to learn and since we are still a rural community, city lights have not faded the night sky.
The first lesson is how to identify Orion, the hunter. At 9 p.m. he is on the meridian (due south). Four stars mark his shoulder, a knee and foot, which form a rectangle. Three stars diagonally across the rectangle is his belt. He is the key to the winter sky, connecting his stars and then connecting them with other stars is the key to the winter sky.
The upper two stars of the rectangle are his shoulders; the lower two represent his knee and foot. Right under his knee and foot, a group of stars looks like a butterfly, if you connect the dots. This is Lepus the rabbit. If a stargazer draws a line from his right shoulder just over his left then out to the next bright star, the line stops at the feet of Gemini. Orion’s belt can be just as handy in the task of locating constellations.
Start at the top star of the belt draw a line with the belt to the brightest star in the night sky. This star is Sirius the Dog Star, which marks the buckle on Canis Major’s collar. Start at the lowest star of the belt and draw a line up through the sky until you come to a group of stars that look like a “V.” This is the face of Taurus the bull. It is time to find a little dog and a crab.
Connect Orion’s right shoulder with his left, and then move east until you see a bright star. This is Procyon, the brightest star in Canis Minor, the small dog. Continue this line out to identify the legs of Cancer the crab. Cancer looks to be a faint letter “Y” in the sky.
Time for one of my favorite star groups: a dove flying over the ocean in search of an olive branch, proving the flood waters started to recede. If you are thinking this last group sounds like Noah’s dove, you are right. Lepus is under the knee and foot stars of Orion, and under Lepus just above the horizon is a group of star that forms a stylized letter “T.” This is Columba, the dove. Just like in the Bible, the dove was flying over water. If you go to the beach, this dove will be flying over water.
This closes the class, which explained the whereabouts of a good part of the winter sky.
A map with aides on how to connect the dots will be online at www.IngramPlanetarium.org. Come to the planetarium to “Two Pieces of Glass,” a new show that has become a favorite of everyone. At the end of the show, the live star show will help for learning the winter sky.