February 2017 Night Skies
Winter’s Fun Asterisms
We played in the night sky with summer asterisms but if we bundle up against the cold nights in Coal Creek Canyon, we can find fun in the winter sky as well.
Asterisms are easy-to-recognize patterns. They can be part of a larger constellation or even stars from different constellations. One thing is for certain; asterisms make a great starting point for leaning the constellations. Finding the patterns make a great way to enjoy the dark nights especially with children, whose abounding storytelling abilities make them naturals at finding fun patterns in the dizzying array of stars.
We’re going to start off simple. Find the Big Dipper, climbing its way around Polaris on the northern horizon. The dipper is an asterism inside the constellation Ursa Major. It’s easy to see why ancient astronomers found a bear outline in these stars. Another easy one. Find the Belt of Orion. Those three stars lead to the rest of the great hunter; one of my favorites.
Flying low in winter’s western sky is the Great Square of Pegasus. Just below this huge square and to the south look for a circle of stars. That’s the head of Picses. Mars and Venus sit right next to the Circlet after sunset.
And lastly, another fun asterism is back in Ursa Major. As the bowl rises in the north, look farther east for three fairly bright sets of two stars heading north to south. This regular pattern of stars form the paws of the giant bear. Stretch your imagination just a bit further and imagine the footprints of a gazelle. Called the “Three Leaps,” Arabic star lore describes a gazelle (drinking at “The Pond” of Coma Berenices) frightened by a lion that then sprang off leaving the three sets of wet prints in the night.
Last month, we explored the romantic meanings of star names. If you followed on a star map, you may have noticed that many of them formed a circle around the sky, centered on the bright red giant, Betelgeuse. Sky watchers call that asterism the Winter Hexagon.
As mentioned before, Mars and Venus sit close together near Pisces in the western sky. As the month progresses, Venus slips farther from Mars after sunset. Jupiter rises early and is high in the sky as we wake in the morning. I noticed Saturn is now high enough in the to be picked out of the brightening morning sky. February’s Full Moon, known as the Full Snow Moon or Full Hunger Moon, occurs on February 11.