Winter brings some of the best stargazing of the calendar year for those adventurous enough to step outside on a cold night.
by Janice Jones
What makes winter months such a good time to stargaze? As seen from the Northern Hemisphere, the stars seem brighter in the winter than in the summer. Why? In this hemisphere we are facing the center of the Milky Way galaxy in the summer, and actually see many more stars than in winter. We don’t see the center of the galaxy because it is obscured by galactic dust, but as we peer into the disk of the galaxy we see the combined light of billions of stars.
In winter we are looking the opposite way – into the spiral arm of the galaxy in which our Sun resides. The winter stars appear closer, and there are some huge stars visible in the winter. But we are looking at the outskirts of the galaxy and actually seeing fewer stars than in the summer. This enables us to look more deeply into the space beyond our galaxy’s borders. That’s why the winter sky has a clearer, sharper quality than the summer sky.
Some of our most easily identified constellations are visible in the winter sky. Most people are familiar with the Big Dipper which appears to dangle from its handle during the winter months.
Orion is recognizable for its famous belt of three stars. See if you can locate the bright red star that marks Orion’s left shoulder. That’s Betelgeuse, a red supergiant star more than 625 light years from Earth. Another star in Orion that is located to the right diagonally from Betelgeuse is Rigel, a blue supergiant star located more than 860 light years from Earth.
To the left of Orion is the planet Canis Major, the big dog. Whenever you see Orion the Hunter, you will see his faithful dog beside him. Sirius, the brightest star in our sky, is located in the constellation Canis Major. Leo the lion, Taurus the bull, and the Gemini are also easy to spot in the winter sky.
Along with the stars, you can enjoy the moon, planets, satellites and meteors in the winter sky. There are several great apps for your iPhone or Android that will assist you in identifying specific stars and planets. Just point your cell phone towards a specific star or planet and voila!
Bundle up, pull on your fleece jacket, hat and gloves and get outdoors to enjoy a wintertime extravaganza in the night sky.
Stars Over Elachee Telescope Program
Elachee offers a monthly stargazing program that is most meaningful for adults and children ages 8 and up. A skilled Elachee educator will teach you how to set up and use a telescope. You’ll then embark on a guided tour of the night sky to see the first quarter moon and bright seasonal stars.
Stars Over Elachee takes place at Elachee’s Aquatic Studies Center at Chicopee Lake and requires reservations. Call 770-535-1976 to reserve your telescope. This program is FREE for Elachee Members. The non-member program fee is $10 per adult and $5 per children 8-12 years. See the current Stars Over Elachee 2017 and 2018 scheduled dates. The next program is Saturday, December 23, 2017.