This month I’m not just featuring one constellation but rather a bunch of them! You also know how much I love the winter constellations strewn out over the southeastern evening sky. My favorite nickname for them is "Orion and his Gang," the constellation Orion being the gang's centerpiece.
I do my best to describe how to take the gang all in but it can be confusing no matter how hard I try. This week I'm going to use the method called the "winter football." It's also known as the winter circle, winter hexagon, or winter oval. Since an oval is the approximate shape of a football and the NFL is working toward the end of the playoffs with the Super Bowl early next month I'm going with the winter football. It's made up of seven easy to see bright stars from six different constellations.
Head out on clear winter early evening this month and face roughly toward the southeast. We'll kick off with the brightest star we can see in the night sky. It's Sirius in the constellation Canis Major the Big Dog. Sirius marks the eye of the large celestial canine and because of that, it's often referred to as the "Dog Star." You can't miss Sirius. It's not only the brightest star in the football but the lowest star. The famous three belt stars of the constellation appear to point at the Dog Star. Astronomically Sirius is one of the closest stars to Earth, a mere 50 trillion miles away, give or take.
From Sirius, take a visual pooch punt, a little to the upper left and you'll arrive at Procyon, the second bright star in our celestial pigskin. Procyon is the bright star in the tiny constellation Canis Minor the Little Dog. About all there is to the little pooch is Procyon and a moderately bright star next to it called Gomesia. I like to think of Canis Minor as a little heavenly wiener dog.
From Procyon keep going to the upper left and you'll encounter two identically bright stars close to each other. These are appropriately referred to as the twin stars of the constellation Gemini the Twins. They're Castor and Pollux marking the heads of the side by side twins Castor and Pollux. Gemini should be part of the winter football because the twins were very athletic in Greek and Roman mythology. I can see them as quarterback behind a center. Looks can be deceiving with stargazing. Castor and Pollux aren’t just two stars. There made up of seven stars! Castor looks like a single bright star to the naked eye it's actually made up of three pairs of stars, all revolving around each other!
From Castor and Pollux draw an imaginary line almost straight up and you'll arrive at the bright star Capella in the constellation Auriga the Charioteer. Capella marks the halftime show in our pursuit of tracing the winter football. Good luck seeing Auriga as a man driving a chariot. It looks much more lopsided pentagon. Supposedly Capella marks a momma goat sitting on the chariot driver's shoulder…. Go figure!
From Capella, go to the lower right and you'll hit a bullseye, literally. It's the reddish star Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus the Bull. Aldebaran marks an angry red eye of the bull's snout that roughly resembles an arrow pointing to the right. Just above that little arrow is a small cluster of stars that resembles a mini version of the Big Dipper. That's the Pleiades star cluster, a group of young stars that were all born together gravitationally. They're over 400 light-years with just one light-year equaling nearly six trillion miles!
From Aldebaran head down and a little to the right and you'll reach Rigel, a very bright blueish star that marks the left foot of the mighty Orion the Hunter. Rigel by far is the most powerful star in the Winter Football. It's almost as bright as Sirius but it's a lot farther away, around 800 light-years from Earth.
Just to the lower right of Rigel we arrive back at Sirius. That's it, the Winter Football. It'll be available until April but head out and tackle it as soon as you can!
Diagram: THE WINTER FOOTBALL...Click here