Stargazers: Finding the brilliant stars of the Winter Hexagon

Spring is about to spring here in the Earth's Northern Hemisphere. First we start (at least in most of the U.S.) with a change of time from standard time to daylight saving time today, March 12, followed just eight days later by the official onset of spring.

The sky, of course, reflects these seasonal changes as the stars of springtime begin appearing higher in our eastern sky each night. It's nice to think of the approach of springtime, but we're not out of winter just yet. High in our early evening sky remain the brightest stars of the entire year, those of winter.

There we can find the familiar star groupings of Orion, Taurus, Canis Major, Canis Minor, Auriga and Gemini. We've certainly talked about them here a bit over the past few months, but sometimes their outlines are not so obvious to beginning stargazers, especially with bright moonlight, as we'll have during the early part of this week.

So let me introduce you to something that might just be easier to spot. It's one of the largest and brightest of all asterisms: the Winter Hexagon (aka the Winter Oval).

To find it, head outdoors during the early evening hours this week and look toward the southern sky. You should have no difficulty finding the brilliant bluish-white star Sirius, the brightest in all the heavens. This star is often known as the Dog Star. It is the brightest and one of the nearest of all stars in our sky, and it will form our starting point for outlining the hexagon.

From Sirius, follow a line upward and to the left until you encounter another fairly bright star: Procyon, the brightest star of Canis Minor, the little dog. Then, continue upward toward the two nearly equally bright stars Pollux and Castor. These form the heads of the twins represented in the sky by Gemini. Farther to the right of these two lies another bright one: Capella in Auriga, the charioteer.

From Capella, slide downward and to the right until you encounter the orange star Aldebaran in Taurus. This star represents the fiery red eye of the bull staring angrily toward Orion. Dropping down even farther and to the left, you'll encounter Rigel in Orion's knee. We then head back to the left toward Sirius, where our journey began.

Inside the hexagon not all that far from its center, we find another bright star that marks one of the shoulders of Orion, the hunter. This is the red super-giant star known as Betelgeuse, whose name originates from the Arabic language and means "armpit of the giant."

All totaled, this easy asterism encompasses eight of the 18 brightest stars visible to stargazers in the Earth's Northern Hemisphere. It is one truly great Winter Hexagon!

Once you've found this large asterism and you see how easy it is to create our own pictures, perhaps you can begin searching the sky for other shapes -- geometrical figures, letters of the alphabet, punctuation marks (Periods don't count!) and more. You'll learn the sky more quickly by creating your own asterisms among the stars than depending on ancient figures that don't even exist.

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