The longer hours of darkness in the winter make it a perfect time of year for stargazing – night starts early, so you don’t have to stay up too late to enjoy the stars! The air temperature is relatively cold, offering a clear view without much dust or moisture in the air. Stargazing creates an opportunity to further encourage natural-world appreciation, awareness of cycles and our innate curiosity of this unknown astro-world.
What is a star? Many cultures have developed stories about how the stars came to be. Spear marks in a large blanket, jewels thrown across the sky, eyes of the ancestors blinking down ... beautiful explanations of the nighttime sky. Scientists have identified “stars” as heavenly bodies that emit their own light. “Planets” are heavenly bodies that reflect light. To the naked eye, the amount of stars we can see appears to be limitless, but the eye can really see only about 2,000 stars in the sky at one time. We are also able to see the glow of the Milky Way, which comes from thousands of millions of stars.
Constellations are groups of stars that have been given names – such as the Big Dipper. Some constellations are easy to recognize in the sky and can be used to find other star locations. Each season of the year has its own star constellations because of our view of the sky at that time. In the Northern Hemisphere, a few winter constellations include the Big Dipper (part of Ursa Major), Orion, Cassiopeia and the Pleiades (Seven Sisters). Most ancient cultures saw pictures in the stars of the night sky.
These legends come from Greek and Roman times:
Orion was a great warrior. Many stories are told about Orion, including that he was the son of Neptune (the god of the sea) and Queen Euryale (an Amazon huntress). Orion inherited his mother’s talent but was also very boastful of his skill. He bragged that he could best any creature on Earth. A single scorpion stung him and killed him.
Cassiopeia was a beautiful queen and the mother of Andromeda. She made the mistake of bragging that she was more beautiful than the goddesses, who were insulted and went to Neptune to complain. Neptune sent a sea monster to destroy the coast. The sea monster was defeated by a hero who then married the daughter named Andromeda. Neptune placed Cassiopeia and her throne in the sky, in such a way that she is upside down for half of every night.
The Pleiades are a star cluster in which seven stars can be clearly seen. These Seven Sisters called out for help to Zeus as Orion was pursuing them. Zeus changed them into doves and sent them into the sky. A Native American legend says that these were seven children, lost on a walk.
The Big Dipper – though technically a part of the larger constellation of Ursa Major – is one of the first objects in the sky that we learn to identify. Especially easy to see in the summer sky, the Big Dipper is prominently in the north. In the 19th century, African-Americans escaping slavery “followed the drinking gourd.” Three stars form the handle; four stars form the bowl. Trace a line from the edge of the bowl to the North Star. Known in Britain as the Butcher’s Cleaver, the Big Dipper has been used by ancient sailors as well as cowboys to tell time as it moves through the sky.
Star maps of these constellations are available for sale at the SJMA bookstores. For information about additional constellations, visit www.skymaps.com or www.space.com/stars. Prime star-gazing areas nearby include the top of Molas Pass and Mesa Verde.
MK Thompson is the assistant for conservation education, volunteer programs and visitor information services for the San Juan Mountains Association. She makes sure to observe the sky every night. For information than can get you out enjoying the sky, visit www.sjma.org.