With solstice behind us, we’re in the full throes of winter. Long nights with little or no humidity make for great star-watching, even as the cold saps the desire to stay outside. As if to further lure us into the conundrum, winter skies are alight with some of the brightest stars in the heavens, contained within the Great Winter Circle and all neatly gathered in a ring surrounding the familiar figure of Orion.
By 9pm, this grouping is above the southeast horizon, stretching nearly one-third of the way across the sky. It is high in the south after midnight and in the southwest as dawn approaches. Start by finding the hourglass-shaped constellation Orion with his distinct belt of three aligned stars. To the lower right of this belt is the brilliant bluish star Rigel, the seventh brightest star, which anchors the southwest edge of the circle. Trailing below and to the left of the great hunter is his loyal hound, marked by Sirius, the brightest star in the heavens. Farther to the north is the smaller of the hunter’s two dogs, marked by Procyon, the eighth brightest star.
Above Orion and Canis Minor are the Gemini twins, punctuated by two stars orange Pollux, the 17th brightest, and white Castor, 23rd brightest. Now arch westward to golden Capella, the sixth-brightest star, in the constellation of Auriga the charioteer. Almost directly below some 20 degrees is blazing Aldebaran, the red eye of Taurus the bull.
Looping back from Aldebaran to Rigel completes the circle, but there is still one more noteworthy light — in this case on the inside looking out. The red-giant Betelgeuse, marking the shoulder of Orion and the 10th-brightest star, sits smack-dab in the middle of the Great Winter Circle. On a clear, dark night, look amid these stars for the hazy glow of the Milky Way.