With Winter approaching, professional and amateur astronomers alike in the northern hemisphere look forward to this time of year because of it's excellent stargazing opportunities.

The reason is that, as the Earth travels around the sun, it 'wobbles,' which causes the Earth to 'tilt' and thus is responsible for our seasons. That tilt, in the Winter, allows us to look deeper into our own spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy, whereas during the summer, the tilt gives us a field of view that shows us looking 'out' ----- away from our spiral arm and out into the vast Universe.

The Winter Sky allows us to marvel at some of the most beautiful constellations and other cosmic wonders.

STARS

The Winter sky allows us to see deep, rich starfields, even with a modest pair of binoculars. With a small 3” refractor telescope and a 20X eyepiece, you can point it anywhere in the sky and count at least 40,000 stars at the longest focal point. This compares to about 15,000 in the summer with the same optics in the same quadrant.

Obviously, ideal viewing conditions –--- free of any lights or 'airglow' --- and fairly low humidity are needed to view any faint stars. A good pair of binoculars are the minimum that is needed. With a modest telescope, the view will be a treat. Just aim your optics into any portion of the Winter sky and you'll see thick fields of stars of various colors, glowing dimmer and dimmer as the distance increases. Nonetheless, your field of view will be nothing but stars, with no 'dark' patches between them.




Winter Starfield View w/ 6" Optics & 20X eyepiece

On occasion, if you're using good binoculars or a modest 'backyard' telescope, you may see 'fuzzy' images in your field of view. Those are likely to be nebulas or clusters. They're too far away to resolve, but still neat to come across.

ORION

The Winter constellations ---- Cassiopeia, Taurus, Big Dipper, Gemini, and the 'dog' --- Canis Major, are among many constellations easily seen with the naked eye. But none as wondrous as Orion, the most recognizable constellation in our galaxy after the Big Dipper. It is visible from the eastern to the southern portion of the sky as Winter moves on.

Orion is a treasure. It contains the largest star in our spiral arm of the galaxy, one of the most luminous stars in our galaxy, and a nebula that continues to give birth to new stars.

In the upper left 'arm' of Orion is the star of stars. The star that every astronomer has their eye on every night. It's Betelgeuse, a huge, bloated, red supergiant that is 1000 times the size of our Sun, and about 450 light years away. To give you an idea of it's size, if our solar system --- with the sun ---- were in the center of it, the outer corona would slip into the orbit of Jupiter ---- a distance of about 900 million miles. Thus, Betelgeuse is about 1.8 billion miles thick.

That's a big star.

Betelgeuse is dying. It is in it's death throes. At any moment it could explode. And when it does, it will be the most incredible sight seen by humans in modern history. The supernova will be so bright that you'll be able to see it during the daytime for 2-3 weeks!! At night, for about a month, it will shine brighter than the moon, and be almost as big. Cosmic rays from such a violent explosion so cosmically close to the Earth could affect our magnetic fields, and perhaps even cause massive auroras. When it does explode (and it may already have --- we just won't know it until the light gets here. And there will be no warning), let's hope it's in the Winter, when we can see it. If it happens in the summer months, I know I'll be booking a flight to somewhere in South America. Orion is only visible in the southern latitudes in the summer months.

At the bottom, right-hand corner of Orion's 'leg' is the mighty Rigel, a massive, blue supergiant that is about 50,000 times more luminous and 24 times larger than our own Sun, and burns so hot and violent that it's life will be very short ….. perhaps only millions of years. As it exhausts it's fuel of hydrogen and helium, those elements will begin to fuse into iron and it will begin to turn red, like Betelgeuse, and finally meet the same fate and explode in a supernova. But for now, the beauty of Rigel is in it's deep blue color. It is truly one of the most beautiful stars in the Winter sky. And one of the brightest. No telescope required. Just admire this stellar powerhouse with the naked eye.



View of Orion using 3" optics w/ 20X eyepiece
Betelgeuse (Upper Left, Red), Orion Nebula (Center-Purple), Rigel (Lower Right, Blue)


As you wonder upon Rigel, you may notice that it appears to be the same 'size' as Betelgeuse. To give you an idea of luminous and powerful this star is, remember that Betelgeuse is 450 light years away. Rigel is 80 times smaller than Betelgeuse and twice as far away, and yet, it is much brighter.

The cosmos is so …. mysteriously wonderful. Only the largest telescopes can gaze deep into the belt of Orion and bring us breathtaking images such as the Horsehead Nebula....



View: https://youtu.be/i2AJUHGBSQA


As Fall and Winter troll on, another celestial wonder --- this one, very close --- will appear below and just to the lower left of Orion. This is Sirius. It is only about 9 light years away. (A light year --- the distance light travels in a vacuum for one year --- is about 6 trillion miles) A stone's throw, cosmically. It is a white hot star that's a little more than twice the size of our Sun and 20 times brighter (luminous). It's almost always in the eastern sky and it's the largest and brightest star in our field of view. Larger and brighter than the planet Venus to the naked eye. This star is so luminous and hot that it actually has an effect (albeit almost immeasurable) on Earth's temperature. As it begins to rise from the eastern horizon, air currents, along with various elements in our atmosphere, will make it appear to change colors, and is a beautiful experience to watch. As it rises higher, these 'color changes' cease, and it just shines bright and white.

It is the closest and brightest star visible to the naked eye in the northern hemisphere.

THE MILKY WAY

The Milky Way is brighter in the Winter sky. That's because we're looking closer in towards the center of the galaxy, or the 'galactic core.' The 'milky way' you see at night is one of the four to six (astronomers still don't know) spiral arms that arc out from the center of our galaxy. That spiral arm we see at night is loaded with hundreds of millions of stars. It's so far away, however, that only the most powerful Earth-based telescopes (And the Hubble, of course.) can resolve individual stars in that arm. All we can see is the glow of those stars, and, if at a dark enough location, pick out the large areas of gas and dark matter that obscure --- completely blots out ---- almost half of the visible light we see.




Nonetheless, in a very, very dark area, far away from any cities of even small towns, the milky way arm is bright enough to read a book by. And the closest place to us for this kind of viewing is the peak (or campground) at Spruce Knob, West Virginia's tallest mountain. It's so dark that astronomy clubs up and down the east coast flock to star viewing 'parties' that various clubs hold for their members there. It is one of the five darkest locations along the eastern seaboard. I highly recommend an overnight camping trip to Spruce Knob if you want some serious dark skies and optimum viewing of the cosmos. And, just as astronomy clubs do, always use the lunar tables to schedule your trip so that you are there when the moon isn't a pest.

And while you gaze at that milky strand of light, from 40,000 light years away, remember that there could be dozens --- maybe hundreds of intelligent civilizations there, if you subscribe to the Drake Equation.

BIG STARS & NEBULAS

Every star you see at night, either with a telescope, binoculars or the naked eye, are all in our own spiral arm of the galaxy. All of the stars you see in the Winter sky (with the naked eye) are all in our 'local' area of the milky way – typically between 8 and 800 light years away.

In addition to Betelgeuse and Rigel, some of the largest stars in our spiral arm can be seen in the Winter sky. In the constellation Taurus, just to the right of Orion's belt, is Aldebaran, a red giant star that's 40 times larger than our Sun. At 'only' 65 million light years away, it's the 14th brightest star in the sky, but it's deep but bright red color is mesmerizing, especially with a pair of binoculars.

To be sure, the largest stars aren't always the brightest stars because of their distance from us. But when you consider just how immense these nuclear fireballs are, they are still awe inspiring.

About 25 times larger than our Sun is Arcturus, an Orange giant that is nearing the end of it's life. But as large as it is, it doesn't have enough mass to explode as a supernova when it finally exhausts it's fuel. It will likely and slowly fade into a white dwarf star, and perhaps leave a single, circular ring or nebula --- the remnants of the gases ejected as gravity is lost. You can see this big star by using the familiar Big Dipper as a point of reference. Look about a hands' length away from the arch of the handle of the Dipper, and the red dot you see is Arcturus. It is 37 light years away.




Just to the left of Betelgeuse is the constellation Canis Minor. As part of that constellation, Procyon glows a bright white. Although only a bit larger than our own Sun, and about 11 light years away, you are actually looking at the combined light of two stars. Like most stars, it is a binary system ---- two stars that orbit around one another. It takes special filters and a large telescope to identify it's companion.

Another binary system that is a must-see is the Capella system. If you see Betelgeuse, look about one arm's length 'up' from the red star and you'll see it. Actually, you're seeing two stars. Each star is 10 times the size of our sun, and just like our Sun, they are main sequence, yellow stars. With the naked eye, it looks like one star. But with powerful optics, you can clearly make out two, yellow stars. And since it shines so bright, and yellow, it's easy to find.

While gazing at the Milky Way arm at night, imagine that you are looking into the most powerful telescope on or above Earth, and then zoom into that milky, white band, and not only see individual stars, but also the 'Pillars of Creation' ---- plumes of hot gas that condense into and create stars. Aptly named, stars are born and nurtured in these massive stellar nurseries, the long-term result of a supernova explosion.


View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=56&v=lj3t_gjuXWk



Note: If you have an HD video card and monitor, choose the 1080p playback option and choose the full screen option for a stunning presentation.

CLUSTERS

Clusters are small groups of stars that seem to be very close to each other. But in reality, they can be dozens or hundreds of light years away from each other. Nonetheless, they are a treat to view, especially with binoculars. Since they were likely 'born' from the same nebula, they tend to be the same classification and similar colors, although dissimilar in size relative to one another.

The most popular cluster, and is visible to the naked eye, are the Pleiades --- also known as the 'Seven Sisters.' This cluster contains seven large, hot blue stars. The number of 'seven' is the number most people can see with the naked eye. The cluster actually has at least 200 stars. Obviously, this cluster was nicknamed long before the invention of the telescope. When you see them through good quality binoculars, it is a glorious sight. Absolutely stunning! Bright, gorgeous hot blue stars. They are very far away ---- averaging about 440 light years from earth, but are some of the most luminous in that quadrant of the sky.



Pleiades; The Seven Sisters

You can easily find the Pleiades by starting at the belt of Orion, then move your eyes to the right, where Aldebaran is, then keep moving right …. looking almost south to southwest, and you'll see them. If you have binoculars, this is a good target. You'll actually see more than seven stars in this cluster. With a modest telescope, you can see about 15 of them.

Perseus is another good cluster to look for because it's actually two clusters that appear very close together. Look almost straight up and towards Martinsburg (NNW), high at the apex of the sky, and you'll see two, faint 'splotches' with the naked eye. Train a decent pair of binoculars on the target, and you'll see two very distinct star clusters. With more powerful optics, the individual stars in this dual cluster are of various classifications, and thus have different colors. There is a red giant, several yellow, a handful of white, and several blue stars in these two clusters. It is one of the most beautiful clusters in the Winter sky.

METEOR SHOWER

And don't forget, the best part of Winter is the annual Geminid meteor shower. Peak dates are December 13 & 14, with peak rates of 60-120 an hour between 3-6am. Most of the pieces of what was once an asteroid will hit our atmosphere at over 100,000 miles an hour, and are only the size of a grain of sand. Yet because of the speed, they are annihilated by the thick atmosphere and glow brilliant colors based on the composition. A piece of rock the size of a dime will occasionally hit the atmosphere and create a beautiful fireball. But in this Geminids shower, most of the debris that runs into us is very small, yet the Geminids is considered to be the best meteor shower of the year.

Unfortunately, it comes at a time when it's usually pretty cold. But if it's clear and no moon is around, it's worth wrapping yourself in a comforter and lying on the chaise in the backyard with a warm beverage to observe this very excellent meteor shower.

OBSERVE

Almost every weekend of the year, the Morgan County Observatory, south of Berkeley Springs, opens it's dome to reveal it's powerful 16-inch telescope. Throughout the evening, they will focus it on the most fascinating and beautiful celestial objects. Some amateur astronomers will also set up their own scopes and invite the public to view. And some of these scopes are very powerful and offer spectacular views.

It's one thing to look at the cosmos via a photograph. But it is quite another when you see it with your own eye. So makes plans to visit the observatory on a nice, clear, dark night. You can visit their Website to check dates and times.

As the late, great Jack Horkheimer used to say, “Keep Looking Up!”