Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Just Look Up

I was out in the back yard with binoculars last weekend trying - unsuccessfully - to find Comet Kushida (a bigger one, Comet Lulin, is at full brightness next month). But it was a crisp, clear night, and I amused myself by looking at the Orion Nebula (the middle "star" in Orion's sword), the Hyades star cluster (just to the right of Orion, in Taurus's head), the Pleiades cluster (up and to the right of the Hyades, looks like a big fuzzy thing when seen by the naked eye; the seven biggest stars are said to be seven sisters driven mad by moonlight). I got spoiled by my telescope and had forgotten how much you can see with just binoculars. So if you've got some, go out there and have a look around.

If you don't have binoculars, go out there and look around anyway. Orion and the surrounding stars are in full glory now. So here's a primer. These were the first star names I committed to memory upon getting sucked into astronomy, and I continue to have a real fondness for them. These are the brightest stars in the winter sky, often called the Winter G, or the Winter Football, because of the shape.

We'll start with Betelgeuse (pronunced Beetle juice, meaning literally "the armpit of the great one"), Orion's left arm, a very old red giant that I've read is one of the most likely stars to explode into a supernova in our lifetime. Might happen in 100,000 years. Might happen tonight.

Go from Orion's left arm down to the right leg. That's Rigel, a very young bluish star.

Go below and to the left of Orion to a very bright star, Sirius. This is the brightest star in the sky. You can use it as a test to tell if something is a planet or a star: compare it to Sirius. If it's brighter than Sirius, it has to be a planet.

Go above and to the left of Sirius now, to the next bright star. That's Procyon. I love that name: Procyon. It got alotta mentions in The First Novel.

Above Procyon are two stars side by side. They are the twins, Pollux and Castor, in Gemini.

Go over now, above Orion's head. The bright star up there is Capella. Now go down, to the right of Orion. That's Aldebaran, in Taurus, another beautiful name.

So put on a coat and go outside tonight and try to find them all. The names alone are worth memorizing, because they're so fun to say, so pretty to hear, so evocative. But being able to pair the name with the star itself adds a whole new level of meaning.

Plus there's a chance, albeit slight, you'll get to see Betelgeuse blow up!


meno said...

You lost me when you said "crisp, clear night." I wonder what that must be like, the clear part i mean.

Eric Shonkwiler said...

Aldebaran is a wonderful name.

Clowncar said...

Yeah, meno, as much as I am into the night sky now, when I lived in NYC I never looked up. Cuz I could never see anything.

Yes it is E. A lot of them roll off the tongue like that. Arcturus. Praecipua. Alcyone. A lot of star names start with "al" because it's arabic for "the."