Even as winter moves into the rearview mirror, there is still time to enjoy the winter nighttime sky, made easier by rising spring temperatures.
Although many nights (and days) have been overcast so far in 2016, if you can find a clear night, you have the chance to view some of the winter constellations.
Orion the Hunter has been recognized since the Chaldeans, who called it Tammuz (after the month in which the constellation first appeared). The Syrians knew it as Al Jabbar the Giant, and the ancient Egyptians called it Sahu, the soul of Osiris.
In Greek mythology, Orion was a great hunter. Within the Orion constellation, Betelgeuse (pronounced “BET-el-jooze,” not “Beetlejuice”) marks where the hunter’s right arm connects to his body. Rigel marks his left foot, and three stars line up almost perfectly to form his belt. Orion can be seen in the Northern Hemisphere between December and April.
If you shift your gaze to the left and down, you can see Sirius the Dog Star, marking the eye of Canis Major, the Great Dog. Sirius is second only to our own sun in brightness as seen from Earth. This isn’t surprising, considering Sirius is only 8.7 light years away.
A light year is the distance light can travel in a vacuum over the course of one Earth year. Otherwise, massive numbers would be needed to calculate cosmic distances in miles.
Since Sirius rises at the same time as the sun in late summer, legend has it that the Dog Star’s brightness adds to the sun’s energy, producing additional warmth and causing the “dog days of summer.”
Its rise heralded the annual flooding of the Nile Valley, which refertilized the fields. This event was so important to the Ancient Egyptians that it marked the beginning of each new year.
The neighboring constellation of Canis Minor, the Little Dog, is marked by two stars. The alpha star is a deep yellow behind Orion, and the beta star (get out your binoculars for this one) sits in a field of stars, recognizable because it is quite red.
Both dogs are located beneath Gemini the Twins. Legend has it the two dogs sit patiently under the table while the Twins eat. Faint stars between the constellations represent crumbs of food.
Leo the Lion can be spotted by its sickle-shaped pattern, marking the head. The Babylonians associated Leo with the sun because the Summer Solstice occurred when the sun was in that part of the sky. Above Leo is Leo Minor, a relatively new constellation introduced by Johannes Hevelius in the 1600s.
One easy way to tell a planet from a star is that stars appear to twinkle, while planets do not. Our next-door neighbor Venus, called both the Morning Star and the Evening Star, is the brightest planet as seen from Earth. Venus is closer to us than our other neighbor, Mars.
Just a little smaller than Earth, Venus is the hottest planet in the solar system and rotates in the opposite direction from Earth, so, on Venus, the sun rises in the west and sets in the east. Venus spends time in our morning and evening sky. Using a telescope, you can see the phases of Venus, just like the moon or Mercury.
Mercury is the most difficult planet to spot with the naked eye. It never strays too far from the sun, and it can be seen for a few weeks in the evening sky, then much later in the morning.
Because it is farther from the sun than Earth, Mars can appear anywhere in the sky, unlike Mercury and Venus, which stay close to the sun. In 1976, two space missions probed the surface of the red planet, putting to rest once and for all the notion of Martian life.
Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, makes a complete revolution in less than ten Earth hours. While viewing this king of the planets through a telescope, it is possible to see changes on the surface.
The next planet out, Saturn, can be seen with binoculars, but a telescope will allow you to see the magnificent rings for which it is known. Uranus, also known for rings, is so far out that even with a telescope, it is difficult to observe any notable features. Neptune is even harder to find, requiring a telescope and up-to-date information on the planet’s position.
Pluto, downgraded to a dwarf planet in 2006, is possible to spot—barely—with an eight-inch telescope. Recent observations of the fringes of our solar system have suggested the possibility of another gas giant beyond Pluto, but no such planet has yet been found.
On Friday, February 19, thunder was heard in the Twin Cities area—an occurrence that only happens so early once every decade or so. Look for an early spring and more severe weather in 2016, resulting in above average precipitation.