We have a near full moon lighting up the sky early in the week, which makes nighttime stargazing difficult. Instead, set your alarm clock between 5:00 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. and start your day in the best way. You will have your first glimpse of the winter stars and constellations. This week, early in the morning, all of us in Minnesota and western Wisconsin face the same direction in space as in the early evening in the middle of winter. This means that you will see the same stars and constellations now as in the winter sky in the early evening. Due to the combination of the Earth’s orbit around the sun and the Earth’s rotation on its axis, you can always preview what your evening sky will look like one season in advance when you observe the stars before the start. ‘dawn.
So why do you want to see the winter constellations anyway? Because, in the opinion of this astronomer, they are the best in the sky, for which it is worth setting your alarm! When you step out of the bag early, you’ll see the main cast of winter evenings light up the southern half of the sky before dawn. I call this part of the sky “Orion and his gang” because there are so many bright stars and constellations centered around the great old man of winter, Orion the hunter. Next to the Big Dipper, Orion is probably the most familiar pattern in the sky, and most of its stars are as bright as the Big Dipper.
I know you’ve seen Orion the hunter before. To me it looks like a giant hourglass in the sky, but some see Orion as an oversized side bow tie. The biggest eye-catcher is Orion’s belt, three perfectly aligned shining stars. Nowhere else in the sky can you see such a perfect row of bright stars. They are Mintaka, Alnilam and Alnitak. Even though they are so well aligned, like star ducks lined up, they have nothing to do physically with each other. These stars, in fact, are separated by hundreds of light years. They just fall into our line of sight that way.
At the top left of the belt, in the hunter’s right armpit, is the bright reddish star Betelgeuse (pronounced “scarab juice”), Orion’s second brightest star. She is one of the biggest single stars that can be seen with the naked eye. Betelgeuse is a giant red star that swells regularly to nearly a billion kilometers in diameter. Our puny little sun has a waistline of less than a million kilometers. Betelgeuse, at the end of its life, is about 500 light years away. If you’re new to this column, a single light year equals almost 6 trillion miles.
At the bottom right of Orion’s belt is Rigel, Orion’s brightest star, on the hunter’s left knee. At nearly 800 light years, it is also much larger and brighter than our sun. It is nearly 70 million kilometers in diameter and emits about 60,000 times more light than our original star. If Rigel were our sun, it would be 100 times bigger in our sky. To be protected from Rigel’s sunburn, I would recommend sunscreen around 3000 SPF! Don’t go cheap with sunglasses either!
Mike Lynch is a retired amateur astronomer and meteorologist for WCCO radio in Minneapolis / St. Paul. He is the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations”, published by Adventure Publications and available in bookstores and on adventurepublications.net. Mike is available for private parties with stars. You can contact him at [email protected]
Upcoming Mike Lynch Starwatch Programs
October 22, 7 to 9 p.m .: Prairie Woods Environmental Center in New London-Spicer, Willmar, New London-Spicer Community Education, reservations required; 320-231-8490 or go to cewillmarmn.com.
October 23, 7-9 p.m .: Garvin Park via Marshall-Lyon County Library. For more information call 507-537-7003 or go to marshalllyonlibrary.org.