Seasonal Holdouts

Spring is days away, but the stars of winter still rule the heavens

Thursday as the sun sets around 6:10, the waxing moon glows high in the west. Look just a few degrees below this smiling crescent for glimmers from the Pleiades star cluster. With clear dark skies you might see six of these distant lights, but with the moon’s glow you’ll have an easier time with binoculars, which should reveal far more stars. Shaped like a small dipper, the Pleiades cluster fits within a pair of binocular’s field of view, about 5 degrees.
    Spring is just around the corner, but the stars of winter still shine high overhead.
    The Great Winter Circle contains seven of the 25 brightest stars. To trace its shape, start with the blue-hued star Rigel at the southwest corner of Orion the hunter. From there, shift your gaze clockwise to Sirius, the brightest of all stars. This time of year, Sirius is at its highest point in the south after dark. Known as the Dog Star, Sirius was the larger of Orion’s two hunting dogs and anchors the constellation Canis Major. The Little Dog, Canis Minor, trails to the northeast of its larger brethren and is marked by yellow Procyon.
    Next, look to the north for Gemini, whose twin stars Pollux and Castor glow red-orange and blue-white respectively. Now extend a line from Pollux and Castor to yellow Capella in the constellation Auriga, the charioteer. Finally, turn your gaze to the west to the red eye of Taurus the bull, Aldebaran, which closes the circle. Another red-giant, Betelgeuse, the 10th brightest star, shines in the middle of the circle marking Orion’s shoulder.
    Just days from the equinox, the sun rises 90 seconds earlier and sets a full minute later each day. Even so, we’re in for a boost of useable daylight this week, when we Spring Forward early Sunday morning, setting our clocks ahead one hour for the return to Daylight Savings Time.