By David Ward
We do not have a lot of clear nights this time of year, so if the clouds have parted be sure to take a look up at all the bright stars of winter. Cold weather actually makes for great star gazing, as long as you are not freezing to death out there. Cold air is heavy and heavy air is stable and more transparent. The stars will seem brighter than ever.
Look high up in the south for Orion, the hunter. He is perhaps the most distinctive figure in the sky and can be seen from all over the globe. It is one of the few constellations that actually looks a little like it is supposed to.
Depending on what time you look, Orion will be standing almost upright in the sky. A bright orange-colored star is at the upper left. That is Betelgeuse, a strange name which means “shoulder of the giant.” At the lower right a bright star, Rigel, shines brightly with an almost blue-white color. Two other dimmer stars make up a large rectangle.
In the middle are three bright, evenly spaced stars which represent his belt. It is quite distinctive and there is nothing else in the sky quite like it. Dangling at an angle below the belt are several dimmer stars, a small sword.
Do you feel like you are not quite getting enough sunshine lately? Imagine living on a planet circling Rigel. That star shines 60,000 times brighter than our sun. That means in one minute you would get 82 12-hour days worth of sunshine. Be sure to put on plenty of sunscreen!
Our sun is almost a million miles in diameter. If that is not big enough for you, try on Betelgeuse for size. It is so big that millions of our suns would fit inside. Astronomers tell us that its vast size makes it unstable. Watch for it to blow up at any time or maybe in the next 20,000 years or so.
Take a closer look at the sword hanging from the belt. Does one of those stars seem a little fuzzy? Check it out with binoculars to make sure. That is the Orion Nebula, a cloud of gas tens of thousands of times bigger than our entire solar system. Stars are being born in there and they actually light that gas up like a giant fluorescent light bulb.
Line up the three bright stars of Orion’s Belt and point down and to the left to the brightest star in the sky, Sirius. It is bright because it’s close, almost our next door neighbor. Wouldn’t it be awesome to go there for a closer look? Our fastest rocket ship will get you there in about 150,000 years.
Do not miss the Pleiades star cluster to the west of Orion. They are a group of adolescent stars only about 100,000,000 years old. In ancient Greece they were beautiful maidens and Orion’s would-be girlfriends. Before he could consummate his amorous intentions, they were snatched out of his grasp and placed in the sky as stars. Talk about unrequited love!
There is a strange visitor from far away barreling through our solar system right now that has a lot of astronomers scratching their heads. First spotted in October, it dropped into our solar system at right angles to the orbital plane of the planets. Reaching a speed of almost 200,000 miles an hour, about three times the speed of the earth, it came in too fast for the sun to catch it.
Astronomers are certain it arrived from another star system and has probably been wandering through the galaxy for millions if not billions of years before finding its way to us. This is the first object we have ever observed in our neighborhood that is not from here.
Another puzzle is its shape. Rather than being round like an asteroid, it is more like a large cigar, a shape that would make it ideally suited for encountering dust and gas on a long voyage between the stars. There is lots of speculation that it might be an artificially built space probe sent here by aliens to check us out. Astronomers have taken this idea seriously enough to train some of the world’s largest telescopes on it to listen for any signals it may be emitting. So far nothing but silence.
Unfortunately we do not have much longer to keep an eye on it. It is racing out of our solar system and back out into the vast voids of nothingness between the stars. I love its name, “Oumuamua,” which is Hawaiian for “messenger from afar.”
If you are feeling kind of chilly these days, here is a thought to warm you up. On Jan. 2 we will be at our closest point to the sun for the entire year. That is about 3,000,000 miles closer than at our farthest point in July. Why is it so cold outside? Because our half of the earth is tilted away from the sun, but I bet you knew that already.