Get a stellar start to your day

I sure hope wherever you were during the solar eclipse last Monday you enjoyed what you witnessed. I was in Missouri and despite the fact that this was the second total solar eclipse I’ve seen in my lifetime, it was so special to share it with my wife and good friends. If the good Lord permits I plan to see the next total solar eclipse in USA on April 8, 2024, although they’ll be many more solar eclipses across the world between now and then. Time to check my frequent flyer miles!

This week in Starwatch I want to share with you the joy of stargazing in the early morning hours over Marshall. For many years I’ve been a super early riser but not by choice. In order for me to be to work on time at 5 a.m. I arise a little before 4 a.m. As brutal as that be one of the great things about it is that if clouds don’t get in the way I can start my day with the stars. This time of year it’s especially a treat because as I look in the east the stars are especially dazzling and bright.

That’s because those stars make up the great winter constellations that are on the rise and adorning in the early morning eastern skies. These are same stars we see in the early evening skies in early January. I lovingly call this part of the sky “Orion and his Gang.”

Even if you’re not all that hip to the constellations chances are you recognize Orion the Hunter. It’s the one that resembles an hourglass or a cockeyed bowtie. Its hallmark is three bright stars lined up neatly in a row that make up Orion’s belt. Just below the belt there are three more fainter stars in a row that make up Orion’s sword. The middle star in the sword is really fuzzy. That’s because it’s not a star, but rather huge cloud of hydrogen gas more than 8,500 trillion miles away when new stars are gravitationally being born.

To the lower right of Orion’s belt is Rigel, the brightest star in Orion marking the hunter’s left knee. The other super bright star to the upper left of belt is Betelgeuse marking Orion’s armpit. Without any problem at all you can see that it has a reddish glow. Betelgeuse is what astronomers call a super red giant star that is a little under a billion miles in diameter. Our own sun is less a million miles in girth.

Elsewhere in Orion’s gang there’s Auriga, the retired chariot driver with the bright star Capella. There’s also Taurus the bull with the little arrow pointing to the right, which outlines the face of the bull with the reddish star Aldebaran marking the angry red eye of the beast. Just above Taurus are the Pleiades, a beautiful bright star cluster that resembles a tiny Big Dipper. The Pleiades Star Cluster is made up of over 100 young stars, probably less than 100 million years old.

The brightest member of Orion’s Gang in the eastern half of the sky is actually “renting out space” among the regular winter shiners. It’s Venus, one of Earth’s next door neighbors in the solar system currently 120 million miles from Earth. It’s taken up temporary residence just below in the constellation Gemini the Twins, parked just below the bright stars Castor and Pollux.

What stars we see as well as when and where we find them in the skies has everything to do with where the Earth is around the sun and where you are on the rotating Earth. Both Earth’s orbit around the sun and its daily rotation on its axis determine what direction in space you’re facing at any particular time. All the stars and constellations are so far away that from our perspective on Earth it seems like we’re inside of giant celestial bowl. That’s more or less what more folks up until the 17th century A.D. believed.

Obviously we now know that isn’t the case but observationally that’s how it seems. The constant change of the night skies on a daily and seasonal basis is one of the joys of stargazing and amateur astronomy to me and many other stargazing fanatics. The stars are always on the move and everything go in familiar cycles.

So set that alarm, grab that cup of strong coffee, and enjoy a little winter stargazing without the windchill!

Celestial hugging this week: On Tuesday and Wednesday evening this week the first quarter waxing gibbous moon will be passing by the fairly bright planet Saturn in the low southern sky. It’s always worth it to take a gander at Saturn with even a small telescope. The ringed wonder of our solar system is just over 900 million miles away from Earth right now. On Tuesday night the moon will be just to the upper right of Saturn and Wednesday night it’ll just to upper left of sixth planet our from our sun.

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul and is author of the book, “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications available at bookstores at http://www.adventurepublications.net.

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