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Get a stellar start to your day

This week in Starwatch, I want to share the joy of stargazing in the early morning hours.

I was a regular super early riser for many years, but not by choice. Before I retired over three years ago, I was a morning radio broadcaster and had to be out of bed a little after 3 a.m. As brutal as that was, one of the great things about it is that if clouds didn't get in the way, I could start my day with the stars.

This time of year, it's really a treat because the morning stars are dazzling and bright, especially in the southern half of the sky. That's because those stars make up the great winter constellations, the same stars and constellations we see in the early evening Butler skies in early January. I lovingly call this part of the sky "Orion and His Gang."

Even if you don’t know many constellations, chances are you recognize Orion the Hunter. It's the one that resembles an hourglass or a cockeyed bowtie. Its hallmark is the three bright stars lined up neatly in a row that form Orion's belt. Just below the belt are three fainter stars that make Orion's sword. The middle star in the sword is fuzzy. That's because it's not a star but a vast cloud of hydrogen gas more than 8,000 trillion miles away. With that cloud, new stars are being born gravitationally.

To the lower right of Orion's belt is Rigel, the brightest star in Orion, marking the hunter's left knee. Betelgeuse is the other super bright star to the upper left of Orion's belt, marking Orion's armpit. You can see that it has a reddish glow without any problem. Betelgeuse is what astronomers call a super red giant star. It’s a little under a billion miles in diameter. Our sun is less than a million miles in diameter.

Elsewhere in Orion's gang, there's Auriga, the retired chariot driver with the bright star Capella. There's also Taurus the bull with the little arrow pointing to the right, which outlines the face of the bull with the reddish star Aldebaran marking the angry red eye of the beast. Above Taurus are the Pleiades, a beautiful bright star cluster resembling a tiny Big Dipper. The Pleiades star cluster is home to over 100 young stars, probably less than 100 million years old.

In the eastern half of the sky, east of Orion's Gang is a super bright "star” renting out space in the early morning among the regular winter shiners. That’s Venus, one of Earth's next-door neighbors in the solar system, currently about 65 million miles from Earth. It's taken up temporary residence just below the constellation Leo the lion, a constellation resembling a backward question mark.

What stars we see at a given time has everything to do with where the Earth is in its orbit around the sun and where you are on the rotating Earth. Both Earth's orbit and its daily rotation on its axis determine what direction in space you're facing at any particular time. All of the stars and constellations are so far away from our perspective on Earth that it seems like we're inside a giant celestial bowl. That's more or less what more folks believed up until the 17th century.

We now know that isn't the case, but observationally, that's how it seems. The constant change of the night skies on a daily and seasonal basis is one of the joys of stargazing and amateur astronomy to me and many other stargazing fanatics. The stars are always on the move in familiar cycles.

Some morning soon, set that alarm, grab that cup of strong coffee, and enjoy a little winter stargazing without the windchill! As a bonus, if you happen to be morning stargazing this weekend, you may catch the peak of the annual Orionid meteor shower. In the countryside, you may see over 20 meteors an hour!

Celestial Happening

On Monday evening, the first quarter moon will be just to the lower right of Saturn in the southeast sky. Next Saturday night, the full moon will be just to the upper right of the very bright planet Jupiter. It’ll be spectacular!

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of "Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations," published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net. Contact him at mikewlynch@comcast.net.

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