Can you find 6 constellations in the winter sky?
Written by Shawn Funk
Looking for constellations in the sky is challenging, but it is helpful to know that the coolest constellations are seasonal before you brave the cold. Thus, you might want to check a star chart to determine if the constellation you are looking for is in season. Winter constellations are among the most spectacular because they showcase the brightest stars in the sky of any season. The cold temperatures are also perfect for spotting deep-sky objects because sub-zero temperatures freeze any moisture in the air, increasing one’s visibility from the ground. Winter constellations are best viewed in the southern sky from December to March in the evening.
The winter group contains six major constellations: Orion, Canis Major, Canis Minor, Gemini, Auriga, and Taurus (there are obviously more constellations in the winter sky, but let’s keep this easy). Prominently set in the southern sky, novice stargazers can easily identify these constellations.
The winter hexagon is used to find each of the winter constellations easily. It consists of six high-magnitude stars in the winter sky; high-magnitude stars are very bright. Each star of the winter hexagon is part of a winter constellation, and they are useful as a guide to the night sky. Using stars to navigate the night sky is called star-hopping. Once the guide star is found, the lower magnitude stars that fill out the constellation’s shape are easily found.
Orion– Orion the Hunter is a prominent constellation during the winter months, owing to its central position in the south. Its seven brightest stars appear in the shape of an hourglass, and the naked eye can see the Orion Nebula located beneath “the belt” on a dark night. Illustrations show a knife holstered where the nebula sits, but I think we can all use our imagination a little. Cheap binoculars will significantly enhance this observation! Rigel is the brightest star in Orion and is one of the six guide stars in the winter hexagon.
Cannes Major– All great hunters have dogs. Fixed to Orion’s left side is the jewel of the sky, the “Dog Star,” officially called Sirius. Sirius is the brightest star in the sky, and it flickers so intensely that it often catches your eye from the ground, compelling many to call the Men in Black. Apart from the spectacle of Sirius, Cannes Major is made up of lower magnitude stars that appear faint underneath city lights.
Cannes Minor– Uh, why is this a constellation? Made up of only two stars, Cannes Minor is tiny, yet it contains one of the brightest stars in the sky, the guide star, Procyon. Find it above and to the left of Sirius. I am sure the dogs here enjoy the wilderness; not much else here for a stargazer except the guiding light of Procyon.
Gemini– Baby, what’s your sign? The constellation Gemini is the third astrological sign of the zodiac, and it boasts two high-magnitude stars, Pollux, and Castor, nicknamed “The Twins”; these are the guide stars. All twelve zodiac constellations follow the ecliptic line, the line where the sun appears to travel across the sky (Dickinson, 2013). All the bodies in the solar system, moons, planets, asteroids, etc., follow this line too. Find them!
Auriga– Look up! Directly above your head on a balmy winter evening, you will discover five high-magnitude stars in the shape of a pentagon; enter Auriga! With a set of binoculars and a reasonably dark sky, three different star clusters from the Messier catalogue (M36, M37, M38) can be seen as dusty splotches in and around the bottom half of Auriga. The guide star in Auriga is called Capella, and it points the way to our last constellation, Taurus.
Taurus– Orion gets all the attention, but I am telling you now—it’s all bull. Taurus is the second astrological sign of the Zodiac, and it is the prize of the winter sky. The guide star, Aldebaran, is a red giant 45 times the diameter of our Sun and is part of the Hyades star cluster (Dickinson, 2013). The bull’s tail is resolved at the Pleiades (M45) star cluster, which looks like a tiny dipper. Cheap binoculars will reveal hundreds of stars between these two clusters, making it the most spectacular constellation in the winter sky!
Sky & Telescope (2022, March 22)
Note. Each star of the winter hexagon is the brightest star from its corresponding constellation. Use these guide stars to find six different winter constellations! It is easiest to start with Rigel in Orion, then go clockwise towards the brightest star in the sky, Sirius. Retrieved January 19, 2023. https://skyandtelescope.org/observing/inside-winter-hexagon/
Dickinson, T. (2013). Nightwatch: A practical guide to viewing the universe. Firefly Books.
Sky & Telescope, Stellarium. (2022, March 22). Explore the winter hexagon. Retrieved January 19, 2023, from https://skyandtelescope.org/observing/inside-winter-hexagon/