For those beginners out there, you may be wondering just what a constellation is, and how a group of stars become a constellation.
A constellation is really a group of stars in some kind of recognizable shape. The term ‘recognizable’ is often loosely applied.
For example the winged horse Pegasus is a constellation, but to those of us here in the Northern Hemisphere, not only is the horse upside down, but all that can be seen is the head, front hooves and body (depicted as a square of stars).
For us it’s a way of finding our way across the night sky, but many different people and different cultures across the world over the centuries have sought to find meaning within those patterns. Truly believing the stars were made up of beings and mythological creatures gazing down upon us each night.
The constellations how you see them today is how our earliest ancestors saw them too. Things are changing frequently and although the stars that make up the constellations can be thousands of light years apart, they will eventually drift away from each other. They will become unrecongnizable, and new constellations will take their place I’m sure, but this won’t happen for thousands of years.
Changes in the night sky are the work of very slow by comfortably reliable processes.
The Best Winter Constellations
I’m going to concentrate on the wonderful constellations delights us Northern Hemisphere dwellers in the U.S have the best chance of seeing.
Winter is a perfect time for viewing. The skies are much darker, seeing conditions are generally better and there are often more cloudless nights in winter than in summer.
Here is a rundown of the top ten easiest to find and more visually appealing constellations to be found in the winter sky:
For those Clash of the Titan fans you’ll instantly recognise the name. In Greek mythology and in the films Perseus, the son of Zeus, defeats Medusa and takes back her head to kill the Kracken and save Andromeda – because one look from Medusa – alive of dead – will turn any living creature to stone.
The night sky constellations are full of such amazing stories. Played out every night in the longest running show in history.
Perseus can be found high in the winter sky on a dark moonless night. He is standing, sword aloft in his right hand whilst holding the head of Medusa with his left hand by is side. Algol is the bright star depicting Medusa’s head.
The Bear (Ursa Major)
Almost everyone has heard of the famous constellation ‘The Bear’, also known as Ursa Major. There are in fact two bears in the night sky – the Big Bear (Ursa Major) and the Little Bear (Ursa Minor).
Some of the stars of Ursa Major are brighter than others. The easiest part to pick out in most skies is the large pan handle and pan between Benetnash and Dubhe. I have highlighted the brightest and most observed part of Ursa Major in yellow in the image above, also known as ‘The Big Dipper’ or ‘The Pan’.
The ‘pan’ represents the body of the bear, the ‘pan handle’ the bear’s head whilst other stars such as Tania Borealis make up its legs.
To us in the Northern Hemisphere we see the bear on its side, facing down towards the horizon as it rises in the East each night. You will generally find Ursa Major between North West and North East, as it mainly sits facing North.
As well as Andromeda’s name being used for our nearest galaxy, it’s also the name of a constellation. The Andromeda constellation is a little fainter, so dark skies help, but she can easily be found right next to the brighter Pegasus constellation (that we will come on to shortly).
Andromeda to us here in the U.S and in the Northern Hemisphere is actually upside down and standing on her head. She is in chains around her hands and feet and held as a sacrifice to the Kracken – as shown in the Hollywood films – set lose by Heides at the command of Zeus.
You’ll notice Perseus follows Andromeda across the night sky in a bid to rescue her, Medusa’s head in his hand to fend off the Kracken.
Andromeda’s head is the bright star Alpheratz (coincidentally the same star makes up the body of the flying horse Pegasus, who – as I mentioned – we will be coming on to shortly). Andromeda’s body is depicted by the star Mirach and her legs depicted by the star Almaak (or Almaxch as it’s also known).
Before we head on over to Pegasus let’s turn our attention to another great constellation sight, Taurus, the bull.
Taurus can be found following Perseus across the skies (just underneath him).
He’s not just a majestic bull travelling the sky, but within the constellation of Taurus there are some real hidden gems to be found:
is the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus the bull, and depicts the eye of the bull, which is the name Aldebaran is also known by. Aldebaran is easily identifiable not only because of it’s deep yellow and orange colors, but also because it is one of the brightest stars in the night sky. You will see how to find Aldebaran in the image above as it’s in orange. It’s also wonderful to look at through a telescope.
the Pleiades cluster – also known as the Seven Sisters – is by far the brightest open cluster in our skies. Easily found as a small wispy cloud in even the most light polluted of skies. It can be mistaken as a small cloud but look at this amazing object through a pair of binoculars or telescope and you will be hooked on stargazing forever. It truly is one of the best sights in the night sky!
The Crab Nebula
the Crab Nebula has so much appeal to those that can see it. It needs dark skies, a good telescope and ideally photography equipment to really bring out it’s colors and detail. The Crab Nebula (also the first night sky item on the Messier list, M1) is the after effect of a star that went supernova around 1,000 years ago.
We know this because of Chinese manifests and documents dating back to 1,000 AD explaining how the supernova created by the exploding star could be see on Earth in the daytime!
The brightness lasted a couple of weeks before fading. When we look at the position highlighted by these ancient astronomers, we find the Crab Nebula still glowing and expanding, 1,000 years after the star that created the affect went supernova.
Astronomers are waiting for the next supernova. A large star that explodes at the end of its life cycle to create such a visual spectacle here. It would be a very exciting time here on Earth – and recent activity and a ‘dimming’ of Betelguese observed in 2020 led astronomers to believe Beteguese could go supernova. It is due to.
Alas the dimming effect was the result of a regular debris outage from the star, which partially blocked it’s view from Earth, leading those who continuously study the star to believe it may blow.
Betelguese is set to go supernova anytime from tomorrow until 10,000 years from now, so perhaps not hold your breath in anticipation!
We’ve already mentioned Pegasus a few times in this article. Pegasus, the winged horse who was rode for the first time by Perseus, helped Perseus reach his destination – save Andromeda and destroy the Kracken by turning it to stone.
To those who are viewing Pegsus in the U.S. and in the Northern Hemisphere will notice something quite remarkable – Pegasus is upside down!
Pegasus’s head is pointing towards the horizon and hooves pointing high up into the sky.
Fortunately, Pegasus is one of the easiest constellations to spot in any sky. It’s very bright. The most distinctive part visible to all is the body of Pegasus depicted by four stars in the shape of a square or diamond depending on your viewpoint.
One of the brightest stars within the constellation of Pegasus has already been mentioned –Alpheratz – which makes up the lower torso of Pegasus whilst also used as the head of Andromeda.
Pegasus is also a great starting place to find the Andromeda Galaxy.
Pegasus is best seen between 6pm-8pm on cold Winter nights, as the constellation begins to set from around 9pm.
Now Cassiopeia may not be as strikingly large or as bright as some of the other constellations we have mentioned, but she is one of the more distinctive constellations.
The shape of Cassiopeia to us in the Northern Hemisphere is a ‘W’ or an ‘M’ – depending on the time of night you are stargazing. To those at a location as North, or more North, than say New York will always get a special treat, as Cassiopeia for you will never set, and is visible all year round.
You could perhaps spare a thought to those in the Southern Hemisphere like very South America or Australia who never get to see Cassiopeia (although before sympathising too much they do get to experience the ultimate grandeur of the Megellanic Clouds, something us in the Northern Hemisphere will never get to see unless we travel far south.
Cassiopeia represents the queen, and also Andromeda’s mother. After an unwelcome boast about her beauty she was sent to the stars upon a chair (often known as Cassiopeia’s chair) to stay seated and bound each night – sometimes turning upside down (creating the ‘M’ shape).
Cassiopeia is high in the winter sky and sits above Perseus.
Orion is one of the most magnificent constellations in the sky. Once you see the constellation, rather than just some random stars, it can be a little overwhelming.
Orion as the constellation is HUGE. It covers a great distance across the night sky – probably as big as the surface area of around 10-12 full moons.
Orion is the hunter of the night sky. Holding aloft a sword in one hand and a shield in the other. You may also have heard of Sirius which is the brightest star in the sky. Sirius twinkles furiously in the lower half of the night skies and is also known as the ‘Dog Star’ – a direct reference of being the dog of Orion.
It’s brilliance and magnificence in the night sky is just one of it’s appeals, but it holds so many surprises within:
often pronounced ‘Beetle Juice’ (not quite right but close enough) is a huge yellow colored star. The size of Betelgeuse alone is worth a look. It is 950 times larger than our own Sun.
If Betelgeuse was place in the same place our Sun is now, it would swallow up Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars!
Betelgeuse is expected to be the next large star to go supernova anytime within the next 10,000 years. When it does it will be so big and bright in the sky it will be visible in the daytime. It’s too far away to be of any danger to us here on Earth, but it sure will put on an amazing show.
At the opposite side of Orion’s hourglass shape, you will find the brilliant blue hued star, Rigel. Rigel is a supergiant star. Although nowhere near the size of Betelgeuse it is still bigger than our Sun and an amazing 47,000 time brighter … it’s over 800 light years away from us, more than 200 light years further than Betelgeuse, but a view from a telescope will show a glowing orb in the sky because of its brightness.
Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka
Individually they may not be familiar names, but collectively they make up the famous Orion belt. The appear as almost a perfect short line of stars in the sky. This though is a little deceiving as the stars themselves are very distant from one another, and give this shape based on the viewpoint we have here on Earth.
Underneath Orion’s belt is Orion’s sword, hanging down from his fastened belt. A very quick look under normal skies will see three stars making up the sword, but look again. The top star ’42 Orion’ and lower star ‘Nair al Saif’ are bright and pleasant to look at – but check out that middle star again. It’s not a star at all.
If you avert your gaze, the middle star becomes more like a small cloud. What you are looking at is Orion’s Nebula. A remarkable place, and the largest nebula visible to the naked eye.
Unfortunately although one of the most recognizable objects in the night sky, it is also one of the most elusive. It isn’t really possible to see with binoculars and just about possible with the largest of telescopes, clearest of nights and good filters.
This being said the Horsehead Nebula isn’t out of reach for amateurs. You will need a camera (and yes it is possible to do this with a cell phone camera), a telescope and an equatorial mount with either a motor drive or Goto and track capabilities. It may sound an expensive setup, but it is possible to build this for less than $700 buying second-hand equipment.
That may sound crazy expensive to some, but unfortunately in the astrophotography world this is a small sum and a budget starting cost, with some astrophotographers spending thousands and thousands of dollars to carry out their hobby.
This article and guide has just touched upon some of the wonderous sights to behold in the winter skies. This is a small example. There are so many things to explore, stories to uncover, new objects to be amazed by and old friends to welcome back.
In a couple of months-time Spring will hold more delights to find.
Happy stargazing and clear skies to you all!