Life + Outdoors » Field Notes

The Winter Hexagon

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Sky View Cafe (skyviewcafe.com) software used to create chart.
  • Sky View Cafe (skyviewcafe.com) software used to create chart.

Any clear evening this season is a fine time to learn to navigate your way around the winter night sky, using the constellations of Orion, Cassiopeia, Leo and Ursa Major ("the Big Dipper") as your references. First off, though, we'll be checking out the "winter hexagon" shown in pink in the chart. This isn't one of the official 88 constellations, but rather an easy way to come to grips with the winter southern sky.

The chart shows the sky for 8 p.m. on March 3, from our 41 degrees latitude here in Humboldt. The next cloud-free night, orient yourself by looking south, where you'll see the familiar outline of Orion-the-Hunter, sporting his three-star belt and waving a sword over his right shoulder star (on your left), orange Betelgeuse. Start the winter hexagon tour diagonally opposite Betelgeuse, at Orion's left foot, with the hot bright bluish star Rigel.

From Rigel, head left and down a tad to the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius (the "dog star"), alpha (brightest) star of Canis Major, Orion's canine companion. Sirius is right next door to us in stellar terms -- we're seeing light that left the star less than nine years ago. From Sirius, go up and left to Procyon, thence straight up to Gemini (the twins), Castor and Pollux. Pollux is slightly brighter, below Castor.

Capella, alpha star of Auriga-the-Charioteer, is next, up and to the right of Procyon -- you can't miss it, it's directly overhead. Capella is actually a double star, but you can't tell that with your naked eye. Next stop: Aldebaran, brightest star in Taurus-the-Bull, conspicuously orange. Like Betelgeuse, it's a "red giant," a bloated cooler star in its old age. And from there, we head down, back to Rigel, to complete the Winter Hexagon.

Meanwhile, the constellation Leo-the-Lion, with his obvious "backwards question mark" for a head, sits in the eastern sky. Bright star Regulus marks Leo's front paw. Above Leo is Ursa Major, rivaling Orion as the best known constellation. The two stars at the end of the "dipper" point to Polaris, the North Star, invaluable to navigators. Beyond Polaris lies the big W of Cassiopeia, tragic queen of Ethiopia in Greek mythology. West of Cassiopeia, and now sinking in the west, is the great square of Pegasus, the flying horse. Note that the bright "star" in the western sky, setting around 8 p.m., is the giant planet Jupiter, as you complete your condensed Cliff's Notes tour through the winter stars.

Barry Evans (barryevans9yahoo.com) considers stars his friends. His first 80 Field Notes are on sale at Eureka Books.

 

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