On a winter evening, the sky is home to what most astronomers agree is the grandest of all constellations — Orion the Hunter
. A rectangle of bright stars, which includes, at opposite corners, 1st-magnitude Betelgeuse
, is bisected by a diagonal row of three bright stars (the "belt"). Beneath the belt hangs a row of three stars — Orion's "sword." Don't be fooled by their uninspiring naked-eye appearance; the middle star in the sword isn't a star at all.
It's the Orion Nebula — one of the grandest telescopic showpieces the night sky has to offer. In binoculars, it appears as a fuzzy patch of light. When you gaze at this wondrous glowing cloud, you view creation itself, for within this luminous glow, stars are being born.
Orion is the focal point of a stunning gathering of bright stars and constellations. The belt points down and to the left to a brilliant white star: Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, leader of the constellation Canis Major the Great Dog
. Sirius always dazzles, but the star especially captivates when positioned near the horizon. During winter, atmospheric refraction causes Sirius to sparkle in a rainbow of colors — a beautiful sight through binoculars or a small telescope.
Return to Orion's belt and continue up and to the right, and you arrive at a V-shaped group of stars called the Hyades. This is the "head" of Taurus the Bull
. The reddish-orange 1st-magnitude star at the upper-left end of the V is Aldebaran
— the eye of the Bull. Each end of the V extends outward to a star that forms one of the Bull's horns. Continuing past the Hyades, you'll see a little cluster of stars — one of the loveliest naked-eye sights in the night sky. This is the Seven Sisters, or Pleiades. Six are visible to the unaided eye under average sky conditions; binoculars reveal the seventh star, plus dozens more.
The uppermost horn of Taurus is part of a pentagon of stars that includes the bright golden-yellow star Capella
. This pentagon is the constellation Auriga the Charioteer
. Auriga lies above Orion and is overhead on a midwinter evening. The fact that these five stars represent a man on a chariot carrying a goat (Capella) attests to the vivid imagination of its ancient discoverers. Oh yes, that little triangle of stars beneath Capella represents the goat's three kids!
Orion's heavenly court includes Gemini the Twins
. From Orion, extend a line upward from Rigel
to this neat rectangular constellation, which contains the bright stars Pollux
. In 2005, Gemini will be more aptly called the "Triplets," for Pollux and Castor will be joined by a third bright "star" — Saturn. Midway and slightly left of a line between Sirius and the stars Pollux and Castor is the 1st-magnitude star Procyon
. Procyon forms an equilateral triangle with Betelgeuse and Sirius. It's about all you'll see of Canis Minor the Little Dog
Winter constellation audio tours