Real winter weather has now set in and so have the season’s hallmark constellations — many of which are some of the most famous and brightest in the entire year. Look toward the southern sky any clear evening and you might notice some of the brightest twinkles belong to one famous constellation Orion, the hunter.
Orion’s star-studded figure is probably the most recognizable pattern in the heavens. That’s because, unlike many other constellations, it vividly resembles its mythological character — a mighty hunter armed with a club and shield. With its distinctive row of three equally brilliant stars representing Orion’s belt, and four surrounding stars marking the shoulders and knees of the giant, this constellation is easily found about due south around mid-evening.
Dangling below Orion’s belt, there is a line of fainter stars just visible to the naked eye — a hanging sword. An interesting pattern is made up of two dim stars and what looks to the eye like a fuzzy spot shining in between. This special “gleam” in the sword is a massive star factory 1,200 light years distant called the Great Orion Nebula. Make sure you check it out with binoculars or a telescope!
Look up at Orion’s right shoulder and it’s marked by a rare, super, red giant sun that is one of the largest stars known, close to 1,000 million kilometres across. If our sun were replaced by Betelgeuse, its outer edges would extend out to Jupiter. Although it lies nearly 500 light years away, its orange-red colour is striking to the naked eye. Even brighter, Rigel, marking Orion’s left knee, makes for a spectacular contrast with its sparkling blue-white colour more than 700 light years away.
Planet parade: The new year starts off with Jupiter continuing to dominate the eastern sky after nightfall. While the gas giant will slowly dim over the coming weeks and months, it is still one of the brightest jewels of the night and makes a great target for those Christmas gift telescopes.
Jupiter, in the constellation Taurus, sits just above the red eye of the bull called Aldebaran and the V-shaped Hyades cluster of stars. —-
Venus dominates the eastern sky at dawn, but will appear to slowly sink closer to the horizon as the goddess of love slowly continues its journey behind the sun. Don’t forget to check out neighbouring yellowish Saturn and follow the lead blue star Spica, of Virgo, in the high southern sky.
Meanwhile check out a couple of lunar pairings this month. On Jan. 10, Venus will appear to be hanging below a beautiful crescent moon just before dawn.