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Meghan McCarthy McPhaul's Winter Notes: Finding wonder in the winter sky

By MEGHAN McCARTHY McPHAUL December 08. 2016 9:22PM
A volunteer from the New Hampshire Astronomical Society lines up the telescope for participants of a Sidewalk Astronomy Skywatch in Portsmouth. (Tom Cocchiaro/N.H. Astronomical Society)

If I have one complaint about winter, it is the length and the darkness of the nights. The silver lining there, however, is the abundant stargazing opportunities.

Whether you’re a novice star-seeker like me or a more advanced sky-watcher, winter is a great time for gazing upward in the dark. And during these long nights, various astronomical programs provide opportunities to learn about the stars — and the stories — in the night sky.

John Bishop, president of the New Hampshire Astronomical Society (NHAS), which offers monthly sky watches open to the public, notes there are several advantages to stargazing in winter: you don’t have to stay up too late, there’s lots going on in the sky, and there are no bugs.

“The winter skies give us the brightest stars,” said John Gianforte, astronomer and faculty adviser for the University of New Hampshire Observatory in Durham. “There are a larger number of bright stars in the winter than there are in the summer. They really light up the night sky.”

Some of those brightest of bright stars appear in the most easily recognizable winter constellations. Orion, with his famous belt, has more bright stars than any other constellation, including the famous star Betelgeuse. The heads of Gemini’s twins are the bright stars Castor and Pollux. Canis Major (“big dog”) has on his collar the sky’s brightest star: Sirius.

Cassiopeia, comprising five bright stars, looks like a giant W in the sky, and is associated with a legendary saga involving love and fury and unworldly beauty. Perseus, related by proximity and legend to Cassiopeia, has two more bright stars.

There is more to the winter night sky than stars, however. There are also planets and meteor showers and, of course, the ever-shifting moon. Venus is currently visible, appearing low in the western sky near sunset. Look for Mercury the next few evenings, too.

The planets are particularly fun to view through a telescope, which can also help sky watchers see star clusters and interesting astronomical phenomena like the Orion nebula, which Gianforte likens to a star factory: a place where stars are, quite literally, born.

The UNH Observatory hosts public viewing sessions the first and third Saturdays of each month, from 8-10 p.m., using both the large telescope in the observatory and smaller ones set up outside.

NHAS orchestrates monthly Sidewalk Astronomy Skywatch events — complete with telescopes and people who know how to use them — right in Market Square in downtown Portsmouth. The next one is Saturday night (weather permitting) from 6-10 p.m. For other NHAS events, including monthly Skywatches at the H.A. Rey Observatory in Waterville Valley, check the calendar on their website www.nhastro.com.

Volunteers at Observatory and NHAS events share astronomical knowledge — including both the science and the legends behind the constellations — and point out whatever features are most prevalent in the sky on a given night.

A telescope is not required, of course, to enjoy the winter night sky. Backyard stargazers can use online resources like earthsky.org/tonight for hints on what to look for, like the full Cold Moon on Dec. 13 and the Geminid Meteor Shower around the same time.

In the awesome brightness of the stars shining through a cold winter night, there is wonder and science and stories the stars have told for millennia.

Winter Notes is published on Fridays during ski season. Contact Meghan McPhaul at meghan@meghanmcphaul.com.

Human InterestOutdoors

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