Do you want to hitch your wagon to a star? There are plenty of bright ones out there in the night sky this time of year. Go outside mid-evening on a clear February night and with your hand draw a big circle in the sky high up in the south. Within that circle lie most of the brightest stars that can be seen at anytime of the year.
Towards the right-hand side of the circle, the constellation Orion is the most obvious star grouping up there. It is probably the most familiar constellation in the sky. Since it straddles the celestial equator, it can be seen from anywhere on earth.
At the bottom right of the constellation, brilliant white Rigel is a very luminous star. It’s name means “foot of the giant” and it shines at a whopping 60,000 times as bright as our meager sun. When you look at Rigel you are looking back in time over 800 years ago. That is how long the little photons of light take to get to us traveling across that vast void of space.
Diagonally across Orion in the upper left-hand corner, another bright star shines out at us. Check out the color contrast with Rigel. This one is a distinctive orange red color. What you are seeing is Betelgeuse, a strange name for a strange star. It is a red super giant right at the end of its life cycle and destined to to explode as a supernova “any day now” according to astronomers.
By that they mean within the next 20,000 to 30,000 years. Nobody is quite sure what the strange name means, maybe “shoulder of the giant” or “armpit of the giant” or even “armpit of the sheep wearing the white girdle!” Betelgeuse wins the prize for size and is one of the largest stars we can see. If it was the size of a giant red beach ball as tall as a 10-story building, then the earth would be the size of the period at the end of this sentence.
In between Rigel and Betelgeuse, the three stars of Orion’s Belt all in a straight line are a one-of-a-kind grouping found nowhere else in the sky. All three are very luminous, shining at tens of thousands of times as bright as our sun. The middle one, Alnilam, is perhaps the most luminous star we can see in the night sky. Some astronomers say it shines almost a million times brighter than our sun, an amazingly bright beacon shining out of the distant depths of the cosmos.
Look for the light
Line up the three stars of the belt and point down and to the left to Sirius, the brightest star in the entire sky. It is bright because it is close to us and not because it is a particularly bright star. It is only 25 times brighter than our sun and it is the closest star we can easily see from this latitude. Want to take a trip there? If you plan to travel by jet, allow 10 million years for the ride.
Up above Orion another reddish star, Aldebaran, lights up the night sky. It too is in its final days of life, but it is not nearly as large as Betelgeuse. The name means the “follower” because it follows the Pleiades star cluster across the sky each night. Taurus the Bull is its constellation and it marks the angry red eye of the bull. Look for the little jewels of the Pleiades just above and to the right of Aldebaran.
Castor and Pollux, the Gemini twins, are below and to the left of Orion. In mythology they had a strange relationship. Both had the same mother but were conceived by different fathers, one an immortal God and one a mortal man on the same night. One twin was immortal and the other doomed to die. Not wanting to be separated by death, they asked to be placed in the sky so they could be together always.
Also in the east and closer to Orion, Procyon marks the tiny constellation of the Little Dog. Almost overhead, Capella is the brightest star in the constellation Auriga, the Charioteer.
If you are tired of looking at stars, there is only one planet out in the evenings, a dim and lonely Mars over in the southwest. It is not very exciting now that we have pulled ahead of it in our race around the sun. It just looks like a tiny red dot in a telescope.
The best planet show is in the east just before dawn. If you are up early, look for Jupiter and much-brighter Venus shining in the twilight morning sky. If you are lucky you might catch a glimpse of the elusive and seldom seen planet Mercury low in the west just after sunset the third and fourth week of February.
Enjoy the bright stars of winter while you can. They will ride off into the sunset when spring comes.