Sunday, March 06, 2011

winter stargazing part 2: orion to gemini and auriga

Hello, and welcome back to another astronomy blog entry!  I was inspired to write this one last night, we were leaving a friend’s house who lives out down Sandy Beach Road after a potluck dinner and movie night and the stars were incredibly crisp and clear.  It’s nice to know we can still get away from the lights of the city and escape into the wilderness to watch the sky.

These pictures are taken with Stellarium as though we were in Dryden, on March 6th at 8:30pm.  Keep in mind that as time goes on what you see at 8:30 will gradually shift as all the constellations will rotate around Polaris, the North Star.

The gemini twins: Castor and Pollux (Image by Stellarium time we talked about using Orion as a signpost, specifically his distinctive three-star belt, to locate Canis Major, Taurus and the Pleiades (if you’d like to read the first astronomy post click here for a refresher!)  Today we’re going to be using the hunter’s shoulders to pinpoint Gemini and Auriga.

First, locate Orion.  He should still be somewhat lower, though fully visible, in the southern skies at 8:30.  Anytime before 8 should be fine as well once the sun has set; past 8 he’ll begin to sink into the west.

Orion the Hunter (Image by Stellarium

To start we’re going to locate the Gemini twins.  Two of the brightest stars in Orion are Rigel, Orion’s foot, and Betelgeuse, the right shoulder of his upraised arm.  Use these two stars to travel ‘upwards’ to the stars Castor and Pollux.  They might be difficult to identify at first so it might help to familiarize yourself with the shape of the twins (see pictures): they have brighter stars at their heads, long bodies, two legs each and a row of stars just below their heads represents their arms.  They have often been visualized as holding hands, which you can notice in the image below.

Orion to Gemini (Image by Stellarium

Now, another constellation which is easily located with the help of Orion is Auriga, the charioteer.  Saiph and Bellatrix (Image by Stellarium is often connected to Taurus, but it is its own distinct pattern. Look for a large hexagon-type shape next to Gemini.  The brightest star in Auriga is called Capella.  Back at Orion locate the stars Saiph and Bellatrix (see picture to the left) and again draw a line upwards and arc slightly to find Capella.

Now you should be able to locate five prominent northern winter constellations without too much trouble!  Once you start to familiarize yourself to the different shapes of the constellations it will soon become easier to automatically pick them out the night sky.  It helps to first find a really common constellation to start, like Orion or the Big Dipper (a part of Ursa Major) which can then point you in the direction of other constellations. 

Orion to Auriga (Image by Stellarium

To end with, here’s a large snapshot of the winter sky.  You’d have to be looking nearly right overhead to see all of this at once.  I removed the constellations lines as well, leaving only the stars themselves behind.  Here’s a little test for you:
  • First locate Orion to orient yourself to the sky.
  • Use Orion to find Sirius, that’s the brightest star in the winter sky and the chief star in Canis Major, the great dog. (this is a little refresher from our last astronomy post!)
  • Next, use Orion to find Taurus and the Pleiades
  • Now, again with Orion, locate Gemini and Auriga
  • Lastly, see if you can find Ursa Major (the Big Dipper is part of it), and notice how you can also use it to pinpoint Auriga.  Ursa Major is also a great ‘signpost’ constellation like Orion, you can use it in all sorts of ways to locate constellations all throughout the year!
  • Now, wait for a clear night (when it’s hopefully not too cold) and take the time to bundle up and get outside to watch the sky for yourself.  Even a few minutes can feel incredibly rewarding.
The Gang's all here! (Image by Stellarium

I hope someone out there finds these helpful and as enjoyable as I’ve found making them!
Stay warm, and be well.

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