Winter Circle

StarDate: January 16, 2009

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One of the grandest star patterns in all the sky blazes forth on winter nights -- the Winter Circle. It's in good view by around the time it gets good and dark, and wheels across the south during the night. It's so big that it fills almost an entire quadrant of the sky.

The hub of this great circle is Betelgeuse, the orange "shoulder" of Orion. It's near Orion's Belt -- a short line of three stars in the middle of the constellation. Although the Belt isn't part of the Winter Circle, it's a good marker for finding the Circle.

In fact, if you follow the line of the Belt down to the lower left, you'll come to the Circle's brightest star, the "Dog Star" Sirius. In fact, it's the brightest star in the entire night sky. It spends much of the night quite low in the sky, so its light passes through a thick layer of air. That causes Sirius to twinkle wildly.

To follow the rest of the Winter Circle, go back up to the upper right -- to the opposite side of Orion's Belt from Betelgeuse. There, you'll see Orion's other luminary, the star Rigel.

And from there, continue the pattern counter-clockwise, circling above and around Orion. The array of stars includes Aldebaran, the orange eye of Taurus, the bull; Capella, in Auriga; Pollux and Castor, the "twins" of Gemini; and Procyon, the "little dog."

The Winter Circle fills much of the southern half of the sky during the night -- and will remain in good view for many nights to come.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2008

For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.

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