Sparkling holiday lights pale in comparison to the spectacular light show that can be seen in the night sky this time of year.
Winter, with its cold, dry nights, is the ideal time to observe the stars. Check weather reports for relatively moonless, clear nights and head out to relieve bouts of cabin fever that set in during the chillier months. With the sun rising around 7:30 a.m. and setting before 5:30 p.m., the next several months present plenty of time to partake in an inexpensive activity that helps us reconnect with nature and gives us a sense of perspective and wonderment that can be enjoyed by children and adults.
Rural areas provide the least amount of light pollution to enhance viewing, but even suburban areas are suitable for viewing constellations.
Be on the lookout for the Winter Hexagon (sometimes also called the Winter Circle), which connects stars in six well-known constellations. Look toward the southwest to locate Orionâ€™s belt, which is three bright stars very close together in an almost-straight line. The first star of the Winter Hexagon is Rigel, which is in the left foot of Orion (a slight right angle down from the belt). Moving clockwise, you find the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius. This intense star is the part of the constellation Canis Major, or big dog.
Continuing clockwise, you find Siriusâ€™s companion, Procyon, which is about the only visible part of the constellation Canis Minor, or little dog. Continuing in the same direction you come to twin stars, Pollux and Castor, which are the heads of the constellation Gemini, or the twins (and count as â€˜oneâ€™ in the hexagon of 6 stars â€“ like other twins, I imagine they sometimes get tired of being lumped together as one). Next, you come to bright Capella, which is the main star in the constellation Auriga, the charioteer. Now move down on the other side of the hexagon. We come to the red eye of the constellation Taurus, the bull, Aldebaran.
Completing the hexagon, you return to Rigel. While observing, you might also quickly spot Betelgeuse, a red supergiant that is 1,000 times the radius of our Sun nestled in the right armpit of Orion (just above and slightly to the left of the belt). If it were in the center of our solar system, it would almost extend out to Jupiter.
This year, there is a little extra something you may be able to see beginning around Thanksgiving on into early January: the comet ISON. If it survives its treacherous journey around the Sun, ISON is predicted to be incredibly bright and easily visible with the naked eye.
Grab a thermos of hot chocolate, some hand and feet warmers, and download a stargazing app on your smart phone. Youâ€™ll be treating yourself to a real show that will help recalibrate the senses.
You can learn more about the current happenings in the night sky at the Gheens Science Hall and Rauch Planetarium, where the weather is always perfect for skywatching, by visiting planetarium.louisville.eduÂ .
â€¢ Celebrate the comet ISON Dec. 7 with a family-oriented Holiday Party, which includes kids’ activities, admission to our Holiday Laser Music Show and Sno Cones from 1 â€“ 4 p.m. At 4 p.m., doors open for a free, family-friendly presentation on ISON (and comets in general), â€œISON: An Icy Winter Tail.â€ Holiday Party: $5 per person (no free admissions).
â€¢ 2014 starts off with a free workshop, Jan. 3 at 7 p.m.: How to Use Your Telescope, conducted by members of the Louisville Astronomical Society.
Tom Tretter is Director of the Gheens Science Hall and Rauch Planetarium and Associate Professor of Science Education at the University of Louisville.