Monday, January 15, 2007

A Ring Fire in the Sky

A Ring Fire in the Sky
by Dave Adalian

By far the brightest stars of the year are to be found in the skies on winter nights, glinting like shards of ice in the frozen heavens.

The brightest of the bright stand together early in the southeast, describing an enormous ring stretching from a hand’s breadth above the horizon to almost the top of the sky just an hour or two after nightfall.

Lowest and brightest among these jewels of the young year is Sirius, the Dog Star, which shines, glinting and shimmering with spikes of every color as it dances in the turbulent air, directly to the southeast. Brightest of all stars we can see from Earth at magnitude -1.5, Sirius marks Canis Major, faithful hound of Orion the Hunter.

Orion is home to Rigel, another blue-white gem that is the Hunter’s foot just above and to the right of Sirius. A dimmer star than dazzling Sirius, magnitude 0 Rigel--seventh brightest in the sky--only fails to outshine Sirius because it is more than 100 times farther away.

To the left of Rigel and inside the ring of winter gems is Betelgeuse, a magnitude 0.5 red star that ranks ninth among its peers.

Continuing on around the ring of fire find angry Aldebaran, the orange-red eye of Taurus the Bull. This 13th brightest star shines at just under magnitude 1 and is directly above Orion’s head as the Bull charges down upon the Hunter.

The highest point of the fiery ring is Capella, a yellow diamond of magnitude 0, sixth brightest of the stars in the sky. Capella is the she-goat and it rides across the sky carried in the arms of Auriga the Charioteer, a constellation that is itself a ring of stars.

Dropping back toward the horizon, look for the bright twins of Gemini, Castor and Pollux, directly below and slightly to the left of Capella. Orangish Pollux is merely the 16th brightest of the night’s stars, just dimmer than magnitude 1, but perhaps it seems to the eye to glow with more luster when aided by Castor, his nearby magnitude 1.5 brother.

Lower than the twins and seated between them and brightest Sirius is Procyon, another shining yellow-white gem. At a bit dimmer than magnitude 0, Procyon is the eighth brightest of the stars and the brightest of the tiny constellation Canis Minor, the lesser of Orion’s hunting companions.


This column originally appeared in the Visalia (Calif.) Times-Delta in January of 2007.