Everyone loves to spend a little time out under that dome of stars on a sparkling clear winter night. Wouldn’t it be cool if you knew the names of at least some of the stars up there? Impress your friends or your grandkids with some of the more obscure characters that inhabit the night sky. If you are a bit hazy on the brighter and easier stars, check out my article in the Methow Valley Winter 2023-24 magazine. If you are ready to go deeper up there, read on.
• Jupiter’s moons. Drag out that old telescope buried in your garage somewhere and aim it up at Jupiter up in the east just after it gets dark. Do you see four little stars all in a row nearby? These are the moons discovered by Galileo 400 years ago. Jupiter has about 67 moons total, but these are the only ones that you can see with that small telescope. Here is how you can amaze your friends, know their names: Io, Callisto, Europa and Ganymede.
Here is a little bit about them too. Io is the most volcanic world in our solar system. Europa has a huge ocean beneath the surface ice, and is probably the most likely place for life in our solar system besides our little world. Ganymede is the largest moon in the solar system, about the size of Mercury. The four were all consorts of Jupiter, the king of the gods, and now have taken their places beside him in the heavens.
• Orion’s Belt. The belt is easy enough to find, three bright stars all in a row. Look for it right in the middle of Orion. But do you know their names, and what they mean? The names are Arabic so they sound strange to us. From left to right, first there is Alnitak, pearls on a string, Alnilam, the pearl, and Mintaka,the belt. All three are huge stars much bigger and brighter than our meager sun.
• Pleiades star cluster. Most people can find this beautiful little gem up above Orion, but I rarely run into someone who knows their names. When I spout them off, I usually get some expression of amazement. Their names are Greek so they have an unfamiliar ring to us: Merope, Sterope, Taygete, Celaeno, Maia, Electra and Alcyone.
If you are guessing they were people, you are right. They were the beautiful Seven Sisters of Ancient Greece, the would-be girlfriends of Orion, but they spurned his amorous advances. Their parents are in there too, Atlas and Pleione. Be sure to check out the cluster with binoculars. Dozens more stars will pop into view.
• Hyades star cluster. Just east of the Pleiades are the Hyades, half-sisters of the Pleiades. If you really want to amaze your friends, spout these names off as well: Ambrosia, Eudora, Pedile, Coronis, Polvxo, Phyto and Thyene. They form a small “V” in the constellation of Taurus. The bright one that looks a little orange-colored is Aldebaran. It is not part of the cluster and is known as the “Follower.” Who does he follow? The Pleiades, of course.
• Northern Cross. On a clear night near Christmas look for the Northern Cross standing upright in the northwest in the early evening. The bright star at his head is called Deneb which means the “tail of the hen.” How did it get such a strange name? The Greeks called this constellation Cygnus the Swan, and Deneb was at the back end of the swan. It is a huge, powerful star.
A couple of important dates are coming up. On Dec. 21, the Winter Solstice is happening. It is the shortest day of the year and marks the start of the long climb back to summer. On Jan. 4, the earth reaches the point in its orbit when we are closest to the sun, which does not make a whole lot of sense until you realize that it is the tilt of the earth which gives us our seasons and not our distance from the sun.
Good luck with trying to impress your friends, and if they tell you that memorizing the names of the Seven Sisters is the dumbest thing they ever heard of, just blame it on me.