Constellations stand out for stargazers right now

  • Thursday, January 30, 2014 12:48pm
  • Life

This is one of the best times of the year for stargazing. Even if you have to put up with urban lighting, you can still see a lot of bright stars and constellations, especially in the southern half of the sky.

The constellation Orion the Hunter and the gang of bright constellations surrounding him are the main celestial event.

There’s Orion himself, surrounded by his cast of characters like Taurus the Bull; Auriga, the retired Chariot Driver turned goat farmer; Gemini the Twins; Lepus the Killer Rabbit; Canis Minor, the Little Dog; and Canis Major, the Big Dog.

At the nose of the Big Dog is Sirius, the brightest star we see in the entire night sky anytime of the year, shining brightly over 50 trillion miles or about 8.5 light-years away.

You would think that with the logjam of bright stars and constellations in the Northwest winter sky that we would be facing toward the center of our Milky Way Galaxy.

Actually, though, we’re facing away from the galactic center and looking toward the edge of our galaxy. In that direction, however, there happens to be one of the brighter arms of the Milky Way.

Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, is bursting with brilliance in the high southeastern evening skies nestled in the constellation Gemini the Twins.

It’s one of the best targets out there for even a small telescope You should easily be able to resolve the disk of the planet with your telescope, and maybe some of the darker cloud bands that stripe it.

You’ll see up to four of its larger “Galilean” moons that circle the great planet in periods of 2 to 17 days. Some nights you can’t see all four because one or more of them may be behind Jupiter or lost in the glow in the foreground of the behemoth planet.

A good three- to five-minute view is best so your eye can get used to the light level in your eyepiece. The longer you look the more detail you should see.

Another wonderful telescope target that’s not far away from Jupiter is the Orion Nebula in the sword of the constellation Orion the Hunter.

It’s a huge cloud of hydrogen gas, more than 30 light-years in diameter. That’s almost 180 trillion miles in girth.

It will have a slight greenish tinge to it and even in the smallest of telescopes you’ll see four stars that are arranged in a lopsided trapezoid.

Those stars and many, many others that you can’t see were all born out of the Orion Nebula. One of the stars in the trapezoid may only be 50,000 years old, which is extremely young for a star.

The glow of the nebula is caused by the extreme ultraviolet radiation from the new stars causing the hydrogen gas to light up like a neon light.

The Orion nebula will produce many more stars in the future, maybe even another 10,000 stars the size of our sun.

There are signs of spring in the February skies with the first early evening appearance of the constellation Leo the Lion. Leo resembles a backwards question mark in the eastern sky.

Mike Lynch is a broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and the author of “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations.” Email mikewlynch@comcast.net.

The Everett Astronomical Society welcomes new members; www.everettastro.org/.

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