Monday, April 17, 2006

The Stars of Winter Fade

The Stars of Winter Fade
by Dave Adalian

With the spring rains finally starting to taper off it’s a good time to get reacquainted with the night.

As April comes to a close, the bright constellations of the winter sky drop quickly over the western horizon after darkness takes hold so you’ll need to catch them around 9 o’clock.

The most recognizable of the winter constellations, Orion, is lying low almost due west. At its most basic, Orion is a great rectangle of bright stars, including brilliant Rigel, at the western corner, and the red giant Betelgeuse sitting at the most easterly. In the center of Orion’s familiar shape are the three belt stars, Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka.

These three equally bright white suns form a straight line at Orion’s waist pointing the way to the sky’s brightest star, Sirius. Extend the line of the belt to the south and you’ll find Sirius shimmering in the southwest. Sirius, which sits in the constellation Canis Major or the Big Dog, is the brightest star as seen from Earth.

Following the belt stars of Orion in the other direction leads to the V-shaped face of Taurus the Bull. This gathering is actually an open cluster of associated stars known as the Hyades. Brightest among them is the red giant star Aldebaran, however, Aldebaran isn’t actually a member of the Hyades but only appears to be sitting in front of it from our vantage.

Aldebaran is sometimes called the Bull’s Eye, but its name translates as “the Follower.” It earned the moniker because it seems to trail the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades through the sky. You’ll find the Pleiades just north of the Hyades.

Above the Hyades and the Pleiades is a ring of five bright stars in the constellation Auriga the Charioteer. This group is an ancient one known as Rukubi the Chariot to the Babylonians.
The most northerly star in the ring is also its brightest, Capella the She-goat.

Southeast of Auriga, just above Orion, are the twin stars Castor and Pollux of Gemini.

All of these constellations are mainstays of winter, but spring is in full bloom now and a sure sign of this is Leo riding high overhead. To find the lion search for a reversed question mark that outlines Leo’s mane. Nearby is a triangle of stars that is Leo’s hindquarters. The brightest of these is Denebola, the “tail of the lion.”


This column originally appeared in the Visalia Times-Delta on Thursday, April 20, 2006.