By Mike Lynch
A great “celestial hugging” (or conjunction when two, three or more bright celestial objects such as stars, planets and the moon appear close together) is going on tonight.
It’s a really tight tango between the bright planet Jupiter and the new crescent moon. Jupiter will be less than 3 degrees to the upper left of the moon in the high southwestern evening sky.
Both objects are wonderful telescope targets. The moon, with all its craters, mountains and dark plains, is something I never get tired of aiming my telescopes at.
Even with a small telescope you can resolve the disk of 88,000-mile-wide Jupiter, now more than 490 million miles away. You may also see parallel bands striping the planet. Those are Jupiter’s clouds made of methane, ammonia and other gases.
And you can see four of Jupiter’s brightest moons that resemble tiny little stars on either side of Jupiter: Europa and Ganymede to the lower right, and Io and Callisto on the upper left.
Most conjunctions only last one or two nights, but there is a one celestial conjunction that you can see every clear winter evening and into the spring. It’s the fabulous belt of Orion, made up of three bright stars tightly and evenly spaced in a perfect row.
Orion’s belt lies right in the middle of the constellation Orion the Hunter. As soon as it’s dark enough, look for a bright star formation that at first glance looks like either an hourglass or a sideways bowtie in the southern sky.
It doesn’t take too much imagination to see the outline of a broad shouldered man. All of Orion’s stars are bright, but the very brightest are Rigel, which marks the hunter’s left knee, and Betelgeuse, a bright star tinted orange-red that marks Orion’s right armpit.
In fact, Betelgeuse is an Arabic name that roughly translates to “armpit of the great one.” Betelgeuse is simply the biggest thing you’ve ever seen. It’s a dying pulsating star that occasionally bloats out to a diameter of nearly a billion miles. Our own sun is no match, at less than a million miles across.
Keep an eye on Betelgeuse, because sometime between now and the next million years Betelgeuse will blow itself to smithereens.
Orion’s belt, though, is definitely the hunter’s calling card. Nowhere else in the sky anywhere in the world will you see a more perfect alignment of stars this bright.
From the lower left to the upper right are Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. You would think that these stars are physically related to each other but that’s just not the case. They are actually hundreds of light-years apart.
All three stars are much larger than our sun and unique in its own way. The largest of the trio is Alnilam, an Arabic name that roughly translates to English as “string of pearls.”
That certainly seems appropriate for all three stars. Alnilam, the 30th brightest star in the heavens, has a diameter of more than 4 billion miles, greater than 44 times that of our sun. It shines from a distance of 1,359 light-years. One light-year is the distance light travels in a year, nearly 6 trillion miles, which would put Alnilam at nearly 8,000 trillion miles away.
Alnitak, on the lower left side of Orion’s belt, is an Arabic name that means “girdle,” and it’s the second largest of the three stars. This giant nuclear fusion gas ball is more than 21 million miles in girth and is a little more than 800 light-years away.
Mintaka, which translates to “belt” from Arabic, is on the upper right hand side of the belt. Mintaka is about the same size as Alnitak and is about 900 light-years away.
Mike Lynch is an astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations.” Check his website, www.lynchandthestars.com.
The Everett Astronomical Society: www.everettastro.org/.