Winter's Bright Lights

One of the most persistent comments we hear is that the clearest skies for stargazing occur in Winter. Actually this isn't true, but the perception endures because what is true is that over half the total number of first magnitude or brighter stars appear in the Winter sky, and the number of easy-to-identify constellations is greater now than during any other season.

The twinkling of starlight is caused by moving currents of air in the atmosphere. On clear cold Winter nights, this scintillation seems exaggerated and adds a particularly stunning element of beauty. It is, however, the bane of the astronomer, for with magnification the 'shaking' is exaggerated and detracts from the clarity of objects being observed.

On these winter evenings, face south to enjoy the spectacle of the season's brilliant bright lights. The Winter Six, the six constellations that will appear before you, each contain a star of +1.5 magnitude or brighter. Central to the group is Orion the Hunter, easily identified by the three stars-in-a-row that form his belt. His brightest stars are Betelguese in his right shoulder and Rigel in his left foot. Clockwise around the Hunter, starting below his right foot, are the other five constellations lying in a great arc around him Canis Major and Canis Minor (Orion's big and little dogs), containing Sirius, the brightest star in our heavens, and Procyon; next is Gemini, the constellation of the Twins, containing Castor and Pollux, the latter being the brightest star; following is Auriga the Goatherd, whose bright star Capella appears high overhead; last is Taurus the Bull, a constellation that contains the Pleiades and the Hyades star clusters, and tthe bright red star Aldebaran. The Hunter and the Bull stand face to face, locked in perpetual combat.

So you see, when Winter's chilling temperatures challenge us all, the most determined will be rewarded with the brightest. Enjoy.

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