Over the past few weeks, we have been discussing the history and meaning of the brightest and most beautiful stars of winter. Such discussion seems terribly old fashioned, but I make no apology for caring so much about those stars. Here’s why.
A trip to the stars is a trip into the past, when powerful men and women slew monstrous beasts and lived their lives among the gods. For 10 millennia or more, humans have looked up at the nighttime sky and associated certain stars with mythic heroes. Their names and stories have survived long after people stopped believing in the gods who put them there.
Even through the last years of the Common Era’s second millennium, the average person knew something of these ancient star grouping.
Sadly, the growth of outside lighting and our preoccupation with the rigors of a technological society have caused the stars to fade a bit from our memories in the last few decades. As the stars disappear from view, so also does one of our most important connections to our ancient past.
However, a few constellations still shine brightly through the glow of streetlights. A chance still exists to pass the knowledge of the old constellations to the denizens of our future. All that it takes is to turn away from your screen, get off your gluteals, and go outside.
Most people can still identify the bright constellation Orion, the Hunter. You can start with the Hunter when you are learning the constellations and slowly expand your knowledge to nearby star groupings.
Right now, Orion shines brightly in the south about half way up from the horizon to the top of the sky. Look first for the three bright stars in a close line that form his belt.
Above the belt are Orion’s shoulders. The star on the left is Betelgeuse, an old, red star. Below the belt are the stars of Orion’s feet. On the right is Rigel, a young, blue-white star.
Truly devoted hunters have hunting dogs. Orion’s dog is Canis Major. Use the stars in Orion’s belt as pointers down and to the left to find him. The brightest star in Canis Major, which represents the dog’s head, has been for millennia referred to as the “Dog Star” because of its preeminent position in the constellation.
It is also the brightest star in the nighttime sky. Its name, Sirius, means “the scorching one,” and if you have ever seen it twinkling fiercely on the southeastern horizon, you will understand why.
Like all serious hunters, Orion has an emergency backup dog called Sparky. No, wait. Make that Canis Minor. Use the stars of Orion’s shoulder to point to the left to find Canis Minor’s brightest star, called Procyon, which literally means “before the dog.”
Great hunters battle mighty beasts. Next, use the stars of Orion’s belt to point up and to the right until you see a V-shaped collection of stars called the Hyades. You’ve found the head of the constellation Taurus, the Bull. The brightest star of the V is the bull’s red, bloodshot eye, Aldebaran.
Many of the stars in the Hyades are brothers and sisters. Together they form a star cluster, a group of younger stars held together by the loose bonds of gravity. Check out the area in binoculars to see even more stars.
Don’t stop there. Farther up and to the left is the tiny dipper-shaped collection of stars called the Pleiades, or “Seven Sisters.” In binoculars, the cluster will explode into dozens of stars.
So go outside, and take the ones you love. As the second millennium slowly erodes into the third, we must realize that a single generation ignorant of these of constellations may cause that old, old tradition to be lost forever.
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.