Friday, January 27, 2006

February 3, 2000

Not until 2002 will you be able to see more bright stars and planets all at once than are visible in this month's evening sky.

The highlight of every winter sky is the constellation of Orion, the mighty hunter. He has been striding up from behind the eastern horizon since September, and this month stands due south by 8 p.m.

His distinctive belt of three stars -- Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka -- slants from lower left to upper right. To their upper left is his raised right shoulder: the beaming red star Betelgeuse. Continue clockwise to his left shoulder, Bellatrix, left knee, Rigel, and right knee, Saiph.

Suspended from Orion's belt is his scabbard. Its middle "star" is in fact a nebula, where new stars and even planets are being born.

The large tilted trapezoid to Orion's lower left is his trusty hunting dog, Canis Major. His dog tag is Sirius, the brightest star in the sky except for the sun.

Continuing in a ring around Orion: The brightest star to his east is Procyon, in Canis Minor. Further up are the Gemini "twins": Pollux, the brighter, and Castor. At the zenith is Capella, in Auriga.

Swinging back down to Orion's upper right, you will find reddish Aldebaran in the V-shaped head of Taurus, the bull.

Now follow a line to the western horizon, along which the four brightest objects will be the planets Saturn, Jupiter (brighter even than Sirius), Mars, and, finally, Mercury (at dusk in the first half of February, and paired with the Moon on the 6th).

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