As the Sun sets and the sky begins to darken, look to the southwest for a brilliant point of light. This is the planet Venus. It will set over the horizon about two hours after the Sun. Fainter but with a distinctive red-orange color, planet Mars appears just above Venus. Both planets will stay in our evening sky through the rest of winter.
Low in the northeast you can find the stars of the Big Dipper. The end of the dipper’s handle curves down towards the horizon. The two stars at the end of the bowl point to Polaris, also known as the North Star. Look high in the northwest to find a W-shaped group of stars, Cassiopeia the Queen. The central peak of the W also points you to Polaris.
Polaris is almost directly above the north pole of the Earth. As the Earth rotates on its axis, Polaris stays fixed in its location above the northern horizon. As you face the North Star, you face due north.
High in the south, you can find the bright stars of the winter evening sky. The most famous and easily found constellation is Orion the Hunter. Look for the three stars in a straight line that mark his belt, the two stars that mark his shoulders, and the two stars of his feet. Betelgeuse, one of this shoulder stars, is distinctly red in color. Learn to find Orion, and he can direct you to many other sights of the winter sky.
Follow Orion’s belt down and to the left to find the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, in Canis Major the Big Dog. Follow the belt stars up and to the right to find orange star Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the Bull. Look just past Aldebaran and you may see a grouping of stars called M-45, or the Pleiades Star Cluster.
To many people, the Pleiades looks like the Little Dipper, except it’s much smaller. If you have dark skies and good eyesight, you will see at least six, maybe even seven stars in this cluster. With binoculars, you’ll see dozens of stars!
Look below Orion’s belt to find M-42, the Great Orion Nebula. This faint patch of light is a massive star-forming cloud of gas and dust over one thousand light years away. Take a look at M-42 through steady binoculars or a small telescope to see a little more detail.
Draw an imaginary line from bright blue star Rigel, through Betelgeuse, and continue that line on towards Gemini the Twins. The two brightest stars, Castor and Pollux, represent the heads of the mythological twins.
Draw another line, this time across Orion’s shoulders from west to east. You’ll end up at Procyon, part of Canis Minor the Little Dog. Canis Minor is made of only two stars, so you’ll really have to use your imagination to see any sort of four-legged creature here.
High above Orion’s head is the bright star Capella, known as the Goat Star, part of Auriga the Charioteer.
From very dark skies, look for the hazy band of the Milky Way stretching from Canis Major in the south, over Orion’s head, and on through Cassiopeia in the northwest.
Stay Up Late
By midnight, Orion is about to set in the southwest. The Big Dipper is now high in the north. Poke a hole in the bottom of the dipper’s bowl to let the water spill out on to the back of springtime constellation Leo the Lion.
Look to the southeast to find giant planet Jupiter. Just below Jupiter is the bright blue star Spica, in Virgo the Maiden. The Moon will join the pair on the mornings of February 15 and 16.
A Look Ahead
As the Earth orbits the Sun throughout the year, the constellations rise and set just a little bit earlier every day. You won’t see much difference from night to night, but you will over the course of weeks or months. What we see in today’s pre-dawn sky is a preview of the early evening sky in later months. Go out before dawn this month for a look ahead at the spring night sky.
Follow along the handle of the Big Dipper to lead you to a bright orange star, Arcturus, nearly overhead. Continue that line down towards Spica and Jupiter, now high in the south.
Look low in the southeast to find Saturn. The beautiful ringed planet will return to our early evening skies this summer. Low in the east, the three stars of the Summer Triangle stand out, as if to remind us that warmer weather is on the way!