Winter Circle

StarDate: December 19, 2009

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Winter might still be a couple of days away, but its signature star pattern is already in good view. It incorporates some of the brightest stars in the entire sky, so it's well worth a look.

The Winter Circle is in good view in the east by around 9 o'clock. Its hub is Betelgeuse, the bright orange shoulder of Orion, the hunter.

The brightest star in the entire night sky is to the lower right of Betelgeuse: Sirius, in Canis Major, the big dog. It twinkles fiercely, changing from blue to red to white in less than the blink of an eye.

From Sirius, loop clockwise around Betelgeuse to locate the remaining stars of the Winter Circle.

First up is Procyon, which stands quite low in the east. If you envision the Winter Circle as a clock, Procyon is at about the 7 o'clock position. It is the brightest star of Canis Minor, the little dog.

The "twin" stars of Gemini are up next -- Pollux and Castor. Pollux is the brighter of the two, and has a slightly orange cast. Then comes Capella, which is highest in the sky, followed by Aldebaran -- the orange eye of Taurus, the bull. Finally, there's Rigel, at the heel of Orion. Its blue-white color indicates that it's the hottest member of the Winter Circle -- thousands of degrees hotter than its other stars.

The Winter Circle will wheel high across the sky during the late evening and early morning hours, and begin to drop from view before dawn.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009

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

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