Look for Taurus halfway up in eastern sky

  • Fri Dec 16th, 2011 9:48am
  • Life

By Mike Lynch

I love holiday lights, so I string up as many lights as my budget and my circuit breakers can handle, in honor of Clark Griswold from the old movie “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” I admit I’m being a bit of a hypocrite adding to light pollution, the enemy of stargazers, but I just can’t help it.

Celestially, it’s getting very festive in the Everett night skies as well, especially in the eastern half of the skies, as a lot more bright stars and constellations are on the rise. Despite having to bundle up, this is the most wonderful time of the year for stargazing. The bright and distinct constellation Orion is accompanied by his bevy of bright stars and constellations I call Orion and his Gang. Even in areas of urban light pollution, like my yard this time of year, it’s marvelous. Get out into the dark countryside and I guarantee it will blow you away. I think it’s a must-see that you should experience every holiday season. Unfortunately I can’t say there are any constellations with a Christmas twist to them. That’s pretty hard to find, at least in the Western Hemisphere, since the names and stories of the constellations date back to Greek and Roman mythology, and they didn’t exactly deck the halls with boughs of holly.

There is one constellation, though, that if you really stretch it has a Christmas connection and that’s Taurus. While he’s no Rudolph the reindeer with his bright and famous red nose that guided Santa’s sleigh on that foggy Christmas Eve, the bull has a bright red eye, and he leads the winter constellations into our celestial dome every holiday season.

Taurus is a small but distinct constellation. You’ll see it in the early evening about halfway up in the eastern sky. I think the best way to find it is to first look for the Pleiades, a bright star cluster that’s easily seen even in urban and suburban skies. With the naked eye more people see six to seven stars, but with binoculars or a small telescope you can see a lot more, and it’s quite a sight. At first glance it resembles a tiny Little Dipper. It’s also known as the Seven Sisters, the daughters of the old mythological titan Atlas who was forced to eternally hold up the heavens. The seven sisters are crying for their beleaguered father. Astronomically, the Pleiades is a large cluster of young stars, about 100 million years old and 440 light-years distant. (One light-year equals almost 6 trillion miles.)

Once you’ve spotted the Pleiades in the east, look just below and a little to the left for a small, dim, but distinct arrow pointing to the right. That little arrow allegedly outlines the snout of Taurus the Bull. Aldebaran is the brightest star in Taurus the holiday bull and resides on the lower rung of the arrow.

The ruddy hue of Aldebaran was taken as a sign by many ancient civilizations of the ferocity of the celestial bull, but astronomically it’s a sign that it’s a cooler star. If you look closely at other individual stars in the night sky you can see that many of them have subtle color tinges. Stars that have a reddish hue to them are cooler than stars that have a blueish-white color.

It’s like the flames in a campfire. The redder flames on the outer edge of a fire are cooler than the blueish flames in the middle. Even though Aldebaran is a cooler star, it still sports a surface temperature over 6,000 degrees, a little more than you need to keep your hot cocoa warm on a cold winter evening. By comparison, the outer layer of our sun reads at 10,000 degrees.