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By Tina Mitchell

favorite memory of my father starts with a cold, clear winter evening. I’m seven; we’re bundled up against the Midwest cold. I’m leaning back on him to stare up at the twinkling stars. He’s pointing out constellations and I’m feeling safe, loved and enthralled by the cosmos. Is it any wonder I love the winter night sky?

Winter constellations include some of the brightest and easiest to recognize. Circumpolar constellations – those that circle the North Pole – offer a good starting point. Ursa Major, the Great Bear, is one of the best known. Facing north, you’ll see the Big Dipper, which makes up the bear’s body and tail. These bright stars – four outlining the “bowl,” three tracing the “handle” – create one of the easiest patterns to spot in the night sky.


The Big Dipper guides you to other circumpolar constellations. For instance, Ursa Minor, the Little Bear, parallels its big brother with the Little Dipper, also containing seven stars – four in the bowl, three in the handle. Together, the dippers appear to be pouring their contents into each other. Polaris, the North Star, lies at the very end of the Little Dipper’s handle. To find Polaris, extend a line between the two outer stars of the bowl of the Big Dipper about five times the distance between them and you’ve arrived. Polaris doesn’t point exactly north, but it’s less than a degree off – about the width of your pinkie finger held against the sky – and has been vital for navigation around the Northern Hemisphere for thousands of years.

Returning to the Big Dipper, trace a line from the bowl of the Big Dipper through Polaris. Continue an equal distance beyond, and you’ll find Cassiopeia, queen of Ethiopia, sitting on her throne. A very distinct shape, Cassiopeia looks like a “W” or “M” in the sky, depending on where she is in relation to the North Pole.

Not all of the interesting constellations circle the pole, though. Most others can only be seen during certain seasons. To see the Northern Hemisphere’s winter-only constellations, turn your back to the circumpolar stars and face south. Arguably the most famous seasonal constellation, Orion, the Hunter, provides an easy-to-spot starting point. Orion’s Belt anchors the constellation – three bright stars in a straight line. Orion’s sword – another row of three stars – hangs down from his belt. Actually, the middle “star” looks a bit fuzzy and isn’t a star at all. It’s the Orion Nebula, a vast and bright cloud of gas and dust.

Orion also leads you to other constellations in his area. He appears to chase Taurus, the Bull, across the sky. To find Taurus, head back to Orion’s belt and move up and to the right. The small V-shaped group of stars (the Hyades) mark Taurus’s head. Each end of this V extends outward to a star that forms the tip of one of the Bull’s horns. Continuing past the Hyades, look for a small cluster of stars in Taurus’s shoulder – the Pleiades.

Gemini, the Twins, can be found from Orion as well. Extend a line to the northeast along Orion’s belt and western shoulder (the bright star Betelgeuse) to two close-together bright stars, Castor and Pollux – mythological patrons of sailors. These two represent the heads of the twins, while fainter stars sketch out their bodies.

Canis Major, the Great Dog, completes Orion’s best-known heavenly entourage. His belt points down – east and a little south – to a brilliant white star (Sirius, the Dog Star) in Canis Major. This brightest star in the night sky represents the shoulder of Orion’s hunting dog. Sirius always blazes intensely, but the star especially captivates when near the horizon. The phrase “the dog days of summer” arises from Sirius. In late summer, Sirius hangs low on the eastern horizon just as the sun rises. The star shines so brightly that early people thought its brilliance added heat to the already wearingly hot end-of-summer sun.

The night sky never dazzles more than on cold, sparkling winter nights. Maybe download a night sky app to your smart phone and head into the dark outdoors. Or go low-tech with a “planisphere” – a hand-held tool you adjust to show the stars of the night sky on any date and time. Or find a kid, bundle yourselves up against the cold, and just drink in the wonders of the winter night sky. Perhaps you too will make a memory that she’ll remember more than a half-century later. ?