[Rhapsody of a Winter Night]
Last Updated 08.01.2009
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Winter nights are glorious! There is something special about the winter stars that makes the bitter cold tolerable. They seem to have an extra sparkle. There is some truth to this because the cold night air is dry, which makes the sky crystal clear and clean. Not to mention that of the 25 brightest stars, 12 twinkle in the winter skies. Six of these stars form the "Winter Hexagon", which dominates the winter sky.

[Winter Hexagon] 

Our tour of the Winter Hexagon begins with the brilliant blue-white star Rigel, which forms the left leg of Orion "the Hunter". In late December Orion can be found in the southeast at 8:00 p.m. Orion is one of the most recognizable star patterns, second only to the Big Dipper. To remember the hunter's form, simply memorize this "nursery" rhyme:
Three stars in a row,
Two above and two below!

The two stars above form Orion's shoulders; the two below form his legs. The three stars in a row form Orion's belt, hanging from the belt is a sword. Take a good look at the sword, one of the stars appears "fuzzy". A closer look with a pair of binoculars or a small telescope reveals one of nature's true wonders. That fuzzy patch is the Great Nebula in Orion, a star-forming region 1500 light-years away!

[Capella]At the top of the hexagon is Capella, shining with a hint of golden yellow in the house-shaped constellation Auriga "the Charioteer". Capella is actually a binary star, two stars that orbit a common center of gravity. Both stars are giant versions of our Sun.

Following Orion's belt up and to the right leads us to the next star of the Winter Hexagon. The red-orange star is Aldebaran, located in Taurus "the Bull".

Moving straight down and to the left of Capella are two stars of nearly equal brightness. These two stars form the heads of the Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux. Pollux is the brighter of the two, but Castor is a wonderful triple star system visible through a modest size telescope.

Low in the east is Procyon forming one end of the two star constellation, Canis Minor. The sixth corner of the Hexagon is the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius. This giant white star in Canis Major, the Greater Dog, is only 8.8 light-years away. This loyal dog follows his master Orion across the sky through the course of a cold winter night.
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