Familiar panorama starts with the North Star

BY Carol Lutsinger is a NASA/JPL Solar System educator and ambassador Texas Space Grant Consortium collaborator and American Astronomical Society resource agent carolutsinger@att.net Newspaper in Education

The on-again, off-again cloudy skies of the past week curtailed our stargazing, didn’t they? Perhaps this next week will be better. Just in case, here is a sample of what to look for each night. These constellations will be visible between nine and midnight this month. Watch their progression appearing to rise from east, cross the south, and set in the west or, in the northern sky, rotate about the North Star throughout the night.

Looking towards the western horizon the Great Square of Pegasus, also known in our times as the baseball diamond asterism, is slowly dropping out of sight. Andromeda’s crooked V-shape stretched off first base lingers above the horizon after the square is too low to see. Auriga, the Charioteer is directly overhead. Shaped like a pentagon, this constellation is marked by brilliant ivory-hued Capella as the figure’s left shoulder. To the left of Auriga is familiar Taurus, which takes us to the southern sky almost to the zenith where Orion boldly strides forth in his star-studded splendor to battle the bull to rescue those Seven Sisters, the Pleiades asterism. In this area is the Winter Triangle asterism comprised of Sirius, Betelgeuse, and Pollux, the right shoulder of the Gemini Twins. The left shoulder, facing the viewer on Earth, is Castor, which is actually a double star. A bit of research on your part will disclose many interesting secrets about this double star system; it is too long and detailed to share here. If you are wondering “what’s an asterism” by now, it is a secondary pattern of stars within a mathematically designated larger star pattern known as a constellation.

Looking towards the eastern horizon reveals massive Leo rising out of the darkness. Regulus, a beautiful blue-white star that is visible for most of the year throughout the United States, lies at the base of the sickle that outlines the Lion’s head. The triangle that follows the sickle marks Leo’s hindquarters.

Once again facing north, the familiar panorama includes the Big Dipper to the right of Polaris, the North Star, and will also include Cassiopeia to the left of Polaris. Remember that Polaris is ALWAYS at this same point in the sky, as many degrees above the horizon as the viewer is above the equator.

The predawn sky will delight early risers with a view of five, yes five, planets. Beginning close to the horizon is tiny elusive Mercury. The brightest point of light in the string is Venus. Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter complete the parade of “stars.” You might be ready to use one of those composition notebooks scattered around the house to record what you see each morning. Keeping a notebook of our thoughts and observations is a timehonored practice and one encouraged by most teachers these days. Thanks to people who protected ancient manuscripts and the Internet we have access to Galileo’s notebooks and manuscripts. They are a surprising tool for science teachers to use in their science lessons. And the same motions of those moons are occurring nightly.

A student asked me this week if Venus is the North Star. These misconceptions abound. This is one reason I write this column. I sincerely hope it is of value and use to you and that it helps you understand and appreciate the beauties of the night sky.

Until next week, KLU!