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Teaching Physics Blog

Finding Your Way Around the Winter Sky

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There is nothing that is more awe inspiring to me than to go out on a very clear night and look at the stars, realizing that each of them is the equivalent of our sun. It puts things in perspective for me. I believe an appreciation for the magnificence and immensity of the universe is something every parent should share with their child and every physics teacher with their students.

In June of 2009 I did a blog posting regarding finding your way around the summer sky. As we move into December 2009, this posting is going to be about finding your way around the winter sky (if you live north of the equator).

In The Stargazer's Bible by W.S. Kals that I referred to in the June posting (I believe it is out of print), the author presents a mnemonic for finding your way around the winter sky, it reads:

"CAPtain, ALL DE RIGging SEEms PRoperly POLished."

This stands for the names of the six bright stars that make up the winter hexagon, Capella, Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius, Procyon, and Pollux. In Figure 1 below, I've placed a wide view of the night sky to place the winter hexagon in context, I followed that by Figure 2, where I have enlarged just the winter hexagon.


Figure 1


Figure 2

The chart above is what the sky will look like at midnight near the middle of December, facing south. How high the pattern is in the sky will depend on your latitude, the curved arc you see in Figure 1 is the path the sun would have taken through the sky that day, known as the ecliptic. Knowing how high the sun was during the day will give you an idea how high up to look in the southern sky at night for these stars. This is a very large pattern in the sky spanning about 60 degrees of arc from one side of the hexagon to the other.

Each of the major six stars in it is associated with some of the best known constellations, the names of which are highlighted in yellow above. The three stars that form the belt in Orion, are one of the easiest objects to spot in the winter sky, and you can use those as a jumping off point to find the six very bright stars named above. From those six bright stars, you can more easily locate each of the constellations.

As the map shows, the constellations are near the ecliptic. I've highlighted the names of the constellations and the stars in the above map. Capella is the bright start in the constellation Auriga the Charioteer, Aldebaran is the bright star in the constellation Taurus the Bull, Rigel is the bright star in the constellation Orion the Hunter, Sirius is the bright star in the constellation Canis Major the Big Dog, Procyon is the bright star in the constellation Canis Minor the Small Dog, and Pollux is the bright star in Gemini the Twins.

I wish to acknowledge that the above star charts came from the "Free Star Charts" link of the web page for The Department of Physics and Astronomy at Stephen F. Austin State University .

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NIST Reference on Constants, Units, and Uncertainty:
AP Physics B Site from Dolores Gende, AP Central's content advisor for physics since 2004:
College Board's AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism Course Home Page:
College Board's AP Physics C: Mechanics Course Home Page:
Table of Information and Equation Tables for the AP Physics Exams:

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