The winter sky contains the most bright stars out of any other section of the sky. On clear crisp nights, the winter sky is beautiful even from areas with light pollution, and it helps that it contains many well known constellations.
Of course, we can’t think winter without thinking Orion. Besides being up there with Ursa Major as the most well known constellation, it is also the brightest constellation in the sky, being easy to see even from cities. A closer look at the constellation as a whole can see the entire picture of a hunter clubbing an animal. During the winter months, Orion rules the sky. The three belt stars are obvious, as well as the two bright stars that make up the right shoulder and left knee respectively – red star Betelgeuse and blue star Rigel – both famous stars in their own right.
Both Betelgeuse and Rigel are very massive and luminous supergiant stars, and if either star were hundreds of light years closer they would cast shadows on the earth, almost acting like distant “second suns.”
Next to Orion is Taurus the bull. The main stars of this constellation are shaped like a V, depicting a bulls head with long horns. The brightest star, Aldeberan, essentially forms the right “eye” of Taurus. Another familiar pattern with this constellation is the Pleiades, an open star cluster that is easy to spot with the naked eye. Because of the shape, many often mistake the Pleiades and ask me “is that the Little Dipper?”
Also in the winter sky, just west of Taurus, is Gemini, which is marked by two bright stars representing the mythological brothers Castor and Pollux. Castor is the bright blue star while Pollux is the orange star. With a good eye, you can see the entire constellation depicted as two stick figure men, or two brothers, with one arm around each other – a “bro hug” if you will.
Canis Major and Minor
Canis Major – the big dog – contains Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Often mistaken for a planet, this bright blue star is one of the closest neighbors to our sun, and is only twice as big, thus being bright simply due to proximity. Sirius is of course also known as “the Dog Star,” and it forms the heart of the dog when looking at the constellation as a whole. During nights when the air is more turbulent, you can see Sirius twinkle in shades of red, yellow, and green on top of its normal blue!
Canis Minor doesn’t have many stars – in fact only two stars form entire constellation! But one of them is another bright star, Procyon. It’s name comes from an Ancient Greek name meaning “before the dog” as it rises an hour before Sirius from most northern latitudes.
The most northerly winter constellation is Auriga, which looks like an oddly shaped hexagon. Named after a figure from Greek mythology, it is traditionally represented as a charioteer, or a man carrying a goat and two kids. The brightest star in this constellation is the white star Capella.
The Winter Hexagon
Now that you have been introduced to the winter constellations, you can trace a shape between six bright stars and form a hexagon. The stars used to make “the winter hexagon” are Procyon, Sirius, Rigel, Aldeberan, Auriga, and Pollux (or Castor).
Of course, if you decide you want to add Betelgeuse to the mix, traditionally you can form “the winter triangle” with Betelgeuse, Procyon, and Sirius. However, with Betelgeuse at the center and using any other two outside stars, you can make six “wedges” in the winter hexagon and form up to six triangles… cool, huh!
Go outside and try this out during the winter. Once you have done this, congratulations, you have the best of the winter sky covered!
Deep Sky Objects
The winter Milky Way is dimmer and looks less defined compared to the summer Milky Way. That is because you are looking towards the outer edges rather than the center.
Orion Nebula (M42)
Located in Orion’s “sword,” you can see this nebula as a fuzzy looking star with the naked eye, even from suburban skies. Being the brightest nebula visible from earth, This is one of the best objects through a telescope, as You can easily see the glowing cloud of gas around the young stars.
The famed open star cluster is visible to the naked eye, and looks better through binoculars than through a telescope. Nicknamed the “seven sisters,” there are actually nine main stars that make up the cluster, with seven named after the sisters and two named after their parents.
Crab Nebula (M1)
This is a supernova remnant from a bright supernova that was observed in 1054. Under dark, favorable skies, you can see this expanding gas cloud with binoculars near the left horn of Taurus.
Located in Gemini, near what would be considered the “foot” of Castor’s body, this is a wonderful open star cluster is about the same apparent size as a full moon, visible to the naked eye under dark skies, and easy to spot with binoculars. With a telescope, You can see a much more compact but unrelated cluster, NGC 2158, to the lower right of M35.