By Tina Mitchell
A 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.